Vicki Huntington: Guaranteed minimum income could be solution to disability assistance clawbacks
Among the many cases we are handling in our constituency office, we currently have two that are classic examples of the saddest headlines we see every day. They exemplify a social safety net that has large and sad gaps and that is characterized by a rigid approach to problems that could be resolved with a bit of common sense and compassion.
I was going to say "the most significant example is"—only to stop and realize that both cases represent serious problems and one is no less significant than the other. Both situations need attention from government.
I ask those who are reading this column: How would you cope with a disability that not only prevents you from working, but also from enjoying everyday pleasures? It's a disability that has reduced you to the need to stay alive, to no more than the need to buy food, to put clothes on your back, and to find a place to live. Nothing elaborate, nothing extravagant, nothing beyond survival. Simply the need to find enough food to eat, clothes to keep you warm and a roof over your head.
You don't want to need help, but you do need it. And you don't want to ask for help, but you must. And you try to feed yourself, cloth yourself, and house yourself on help that at the very most is $900 a month—and is often much less. It is impossible—and it drives you to fury and fear and self-loathing and desperation.
And in your desperation you think about what else you can do to help make your life bearable. And you change your already small RRSP into a tiny annuity, so you can supplement your disability payment. Of course, that means in a very few years your RRSP will be gone. But you have to have that extra bit of money to survive and so you leave the future to itself.
Or your survival is made a little bit easier because you have an almost insignificant WCB pension, a tiny pension for a problem that contributed to the disability you now confront. A pension that makes it just possible to survive—nothing more—on the disability payment.
And then the government finds out about your annuity. And the government finds out about your WCB pension. And the government claws back the annuity from your disability cheque. And claws back the pension. And forces you to survive on only the disability payment.
And the government not only claws back the annuity, it makes you pay it all back—from your disability payment. And to top that off, you have a stroke and now have medical expenses that aren't covered and also have to come out of your disability. And remember, that disability payment cannot be more than $900.
And worse still? You have always worked at physical labour and now you need—and want—to get a "static" job, one for which you have no experience or training. But because it is a WCB cheque being clawed back, and not an Employment Insurance cheque, you can't get retraining assistance. Heavens, you're not unemployed, you're disabled! So you end up homeless. And you end up mentally ill. And you didn't want to be that way. And we can't find a way to help you. And we are sad to the point of tears.
You seldom hear me say government should do more. The money just isn't there. But the program cutbacks, the bureaucracy, the rigidity, and the lack of funding suggest a new approach is needed. I am thinking it is time we consider a guaranteed minimum income. It would be cheaper and it would restore dignity to a process that no longer works for the people who need it most.