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All Manitobans deserve to live with dignity

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Manitoba’s Disability Support Act establishes a framework for providing financial assistance outside the Employment and Income Assistance (EIA) system to persons with prolonged and severe disabilities. This fall, the provincial government is considering draft regulations for the new program. Members of the disability community and anti-poverty advocates have demanded the program should reflect the principle that all Manitobans deserve a life of dignity.

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Opinion

Manitoba’s Disability Support Act establishes a framework for providing financial assistance outside the Employment and Income Assistance (EIA) system to persons with prolonged and severe disabilities. This fall, the provincial government is considering draft regulations for the new program. Members of the disability community and anti-poverty advocates have demanded the program should reflect the principle that all Manitobans deserve a life of dignity.

The proposed levels of assistance in the regulation are still far below what is needed to support health and social inclusion. The government has proposed an increase of between $100 and $144 per person per month compared with current EIA disability.

With this increase, the basic needs allowance of a single individual with a severe and prolonged disability would amount to $580.84 per month. With no indexing to inflation, the value of this benefit will be eroded in future years.

Assistance levels would remain far below Canada and Manitoba’s official poverty line. Including Rent Assist, recipients of the new program would expect to receive just $15,336 per year, a level that is just 61 per cent of the Market Basket Measure when recent levels of inflation are taken into account.

Moreover, as groups such as Campaign 2000 have pointed out, Canada’s Market Basket Measure is already a measure of severe deprivation. The proposed support only provides 46 per cent of the more adequate standard of living calculated by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ living wage index.

In Manitoba, people with disabilities suffer dehumanizing indignities as result of low levels of income support. For example, private-market housing available at Rent Assist levels is, with few exceptions, overcrowded and/or in poor condition.

The crisis of homelessness we see across Manitoba communities is a direct result. The modest increases proposed in the new benefit program will not significantly improve the housing options available.

Similarly, basic necessities — including access to food that sustains good health, provides dietary choices and meets basic requirements — will remain out of reach. In Winnipeg, the cost of a national standard nutritious food basket would account for nearly two-thirds of non-rent expenses for an individual in the new program. This constitutes severe food insecurity.

One promising aspect of the new program is its potential to reduce the barriers to access. Current requirements for people with severe and prolonged disabilities to submit proof of their continuing eligibility on a regular basis are degrading. The new program should streamline and reduce barriers to access by recognizing that some disabilities are, by their nature, unlikely to change from one assessment cycle to the next.

Still, the processes for assessing eligibility are yet to be determined. While certain classes of people with disabilities — including people in long-term care, supported by community living disability services or receiving Canada Pension Plan disability benefits — will be automatically enrolled, the department estimates the majority of other people currently receiving EIA disability will be excluded from the program.

One of the most significant changes in the program will be a change in how earned income of recipients is treated. EIA recipients have any wage income deducted at a rate of 70 cents on the dollar after the first $200 earned each month. Government is proposing an annual exemption of $12,000 per year, with additional income deducted dollar-for-dollar from their benefits.

This will increase flexibility for workers by allowing income to be assessed on an annual rather than monthly basis. However, the $12,000 threshold is arbitrary and will mean workers will not be able to earn a living wage before they are cut off from the system.

The dollar-for-dollar deduction translates to a punitive 100 per cent effective tax rate for low-wage workers with disabilities. Instead, the deduction rate should be set at 30 per cent to encourage workforce participation and offer dignified living wages for workers with disabilities.

The existing Manitoba Assistance Act requires the province to “provide residents of Manitoba those things and services which are essential to health and well-being.” Manitoba has long failed in these obligations. The new Disability Support Act could provide an opportunity to rectify these gaps in supports and services for at least some Manitobans most in need.

Despite small increases in benefits and improved access, the supports remain inadequate, and the coverage of services will leave out too many Manitobans. These flaws reinforce the conclusion that tinkering with existing programs will not solve the problem of poverty in Manitoba.

Instead, a broad-based shift to a guaranteed livable basic income is required to ensure all Manitobans have access to the dignity and quality of life we all deserve.

Josh Brandon is a community animator at the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg and a research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – Manitoba.

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