The federal government is currently working on Bill C-22, whose full name is An Act to reduce poverty and to support the financial security of persons with disabilities by establishing the Canada disability benefit and making a consequential amendment to the Income Tax Act. It is currently up for consideration by the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. Katherine Scott, a senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, submitted the following text to the committee in support of Bill C-22. Read the full submission below.
Thank you very much for your invitation to speak to the Standing Committee today. The CCPA is an independent, non-partisan research institute concerned with social, economic and environmental justice, with offices across the country. We applaud the government for introducing this critical program to reduce the extent and depth of poverty that people with disabilities experience and urge the Senate Standing Committee to quickly pass Bill C-22.
I would like to stress at the onset that we are not disability experts. It is people with lived expertise of disability and their organizations whose voices count the most in this process. On this point, we were very pleased to see amendments to the Bill that strengthen the requirement for meaningful collaboration with the disability community in the development and design of the new program. The success of this initiative to meaningfully improve people’s lives hinges on centring the voices of those most impacted.
Urgency of reform
This Committee (and the House Committee) has heard from many organizations and individuals about the scale and the impact of poverty on people’s lives, especially individuals facing multiple and overlapping sources of oppression. Every day, people with disabilities are forced to make decisions as to whether to fill prescriptions, buy nutritious food, or use precious energy to take public transit to local food banks. Every day, people with disabilities struggle to pay the rent and access crucial supports such as attendant care, child care and inclusive education—all critical to facilitating people’s full participation in the economy and larger society.
These challenges have become immeasurably more difficult in the past year as the cost of living has skyrocketed. While Tuesday’s CPI figures show that the monthly rate of inflation is easing – the cost of essentials including food (up 9.7 per cent) and shelter (up 5.4 per cent) continues to climb and remains at historically high levels.
Tomorrow, you’ll hear from Statistics Canada again with the release of the 2021 Canadian Income Survey (CIS). Last year, the 2020 CIS generated headlines, reporting an historic 38 per cent drop in the poverty rate between 2019 and 2020 (as measured by the official poverty line).
Among people with disabilities, poverty fell by 5.2 percentage points from 13.7 per cent in 2019 to 8.5 per cent in 2020. (There was a more modest decline in poverty using the after-tax low income measures, from 18.8 per cent to 14.7 per cent).
This was an extraordinary achievement in the context of a national crisis. Emergency programming introduced to offset employment losses and pandemic-related costs drove down poverty rates as many more people with disabilities (and others) were able to access government support.
Tomorrow’s report for 2021 will likely reveal an equally historic year-over-year rise in poverty. At this point, it is a question of how significant this increase will be.
Emergency benefits (mostly federal) made a huge difference, reaching 20.7 million, or two-thirds of all adults (aged 15+). This included over seven and a half million Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) recipients and roughly 1.4 million people with disabilities (4.6 per cent of all adults) who received the one-time $600 payment in the fall of 2020.
It needs to be said that a sizable group of people with disabilities, among the poorest of the poor in Canada, were left to struggle on desperately inadequate incomes with scant support during the initial phase of the pandemic. (British Columbia was the only province to temporarily increase monthly support to people on social assistance.) While the number of poor decreased in 2020, the change in the average depth of poverty barely budged.
That said, the roll-out of pandemic programs offers important lessons for strengthening our income security programs permanently, especially the value of expanding coverage to better cover workers who work part-time or part-year or on temporary basis as so many people with disabilities do—and creating a higher “minimum income floor”—hopefully through new programs like the proposed Canada Disability Benefit.
You’ll remember back in April 2020 when it became clear that the first version of the CERB program was still missing many low wage workers experiencing cuts in their hours of employment. The move to allow workers to make up to $1,000 a month and still claim the CERB boosted the number eligible for CERB by over 900,000.
Likewise, the more expansive approach to providing income support to parents and caregivers—and applying an individual income test, not a household test—ensured that many more women with disabilities enjoyed higher incomes through these difficult months.
We have the opportunity now to right the wrongs of the past and fill a critical gap in our income security infrastructure, to finally provide the supports necessary for people with disabilities to live with dignity and security.
The potential for the future
We know, and agree, that there are many shortcomings of the current legislation. It does not contain many essential details regarding the design of the benefit. For example, while the amended legislation states that the benefit must be “adequate” and take into account the Official Poverty Line, it does not define “adequate” or require that the benefit move recipients to, or above, the poverty line.
It does not establish an accessible and transparent appeal mechanism or prohibit the claw back of benefits by other levels of government or deductions in benefits delivered through private insurance plans. It does not reference Indigenous governments and their fundamental role in creating a program that addresses the unique situation of Indigenous peoples.
At this juncture, however, we believe that it is imperative to move forward, quickly pass the Bill and embark on the design process with the full and meaningful collaboration of people with disabilities from a “range of backgrounds” as set out in the Act.
In our own work on the Alternative Federal Budget, we have made the case each year that the sizable gaps in our income security system can and should be addressed. Income supports for children and seniors are well established (although certainly not perfect), but those for working-age residents such as the Canada Workers Benefit (CWB) and various provincial and territorial social assistance programs are wholly inadequate and highly intrusive – especially for women.
Within this, benefits for people with disabilities are typically considered as add-ons to existing income transfer programs. For example, the CWB has a disability add-on. There is also a federal Disability Tax Credit, although this credit is non-refundable and very narrowly targeted to people with severe or prolonged disabilities—as determined by a medical practitioner.
Canada urgently needs a national disability income security program that serves adults aged 18 to 64 years. We recognize that this is not an easy task. Our own proposed model for a CDB proceeds in phases, initially including recipients of federal programs such as Canada Pension Plan Disability benefit and building out from there to cover, minimally, all who are eligible for provincial and territorial social assistance.
We envision a broadly inclusive Canada Disability Benefit. Back in the 1990s, when federal and provincial governments created the National Child Benefit (NCB), we talked about “taking kids off welfare.” One of the NCB’s explicit goals was to create a national platform of income-tested child benefits available to both social assistance families and low-income working families. As the federal government’s support grew, provinces re-invested savings from their social assistance programs into expanded community supports.
Such an approach can work again. No income support alone can prevent the disproportionate rates of poverty, housing precarity, food insecurity, or unmet medical needs experienced by people with disabilities. We believe that the Canada Disability Benefit initiative provides the opportunity to both reduce poverty and expand necessary publicly funded, universally-accessible community supports.
There are huge challenges ahead—but progress is perfectly possible as we’ve seen time and again. What’s needed now is a heightened sense of urgency to move promises into transformative action, quickly passing Bill C-22 and getting on with building a disability just future.