Could Canada’s new federal disability benefit lead to basic income?

Basic income is a guarantee that no Canadian will have to live on an income far below the poverty line. It’s as simple as that. The key is how to get it done.

By: Evelyn L. Forget | Sheila Regehr

Last month’s throne speech committed to the creation of a new Canadian Disability Benefit for persons with disabilities — that’s good news. The details remain vague, but some disability advocates have long championed a basic Income for people with disabilities.

The newly announced disability benefit may offer a step toward that reality.

Basic income is a guarantee that no Canadian will have to live on an income far below the poverty line. It is not a replacement for necessary public services, but rather a federal government cash transfer made directly to individuals that would replace provincial income assistance and supplement the incomes of the working poor.

Critics of basic income have watched their debating points topple one by one before mounting evidence. It costs too much? No less an authority than the Parliamentary Budget Office showed that Canada has the resources to pay for a well-designed basic income during normal times and, even during the pandemic, a basic income would cost less than the alternatives.

It’s bad for women? For Indigenous people? Not according to the Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women that called for a guaranteed livable income for all Canadians, or the coalition of 4,000 organizations and individuals who have called for a basic income to address gender inequity.

Bad for workers? Not according to the Steelworkers Union. Basic income encourages people to work less? There is no evidence whatsoever that overall work effort will fall; experimental evidence, in fact, suggests some people will work more, and many people invest in job training to improve their future prospects.

Now some critics have claimed that basic income will take resources away from people with disabilities to give money to people who don’t need it. Nonsense.

Some people with disabilities require income replacement which they currently receive through provincial disability programs. Others receive support through the Canada Pension Plan; this program depends on previous work history and has an obligation to current workers and recipients. Basic income would replace the complex, bureaucratic provincial disability income with a higher guaranteed income and provide a top up for those with other income who still fall below the poverty line.

Some people also require assistive devices, such as wheelchairs or hearing aids, prescription drugs or medical supplies or specialized services. Currently, these items are supplied or subsidized through a variety of federal and provincial programs. These programs would remain in their current or modified form, available to people with disabilities in addition to basic income.

In other words, basic income would mean more money for persons with disabilities, not less.

For example, someone who requires a wheelchair would be able to get one the same way that they do now. While arrangements differ by province, every province subsidizes assistive devices one way or another. In Ontario, OHIP’s Assistive Devices Program subsidizes everyone who needs these devices.

But now would be a welcome time to reform other (federal and provincial) disability supports beyond income replacement too. Persons with disabilities are among the poorest in Canada, and it makes neither moral nor economic sense to make disability-related benefits, to which they are entitled, difficult to access or designed to trap them into endless cycles of poverty.

Currently the co-payment for an assistive device, as well as other necessary items such as prescription drugs, testing supplies for diabetes, orthotics, or other supplies are subsidized for people who receive provincial income replacement in some provinces, but not for low-income working people who have similar incomes and needs.

Wouldn’t it be reasonable to supply these items to everyone who needs them, based on the level of their income rather than its source?

That would both allow low-income working people with disabilities to benefit, and it would allow people with disabilities to work should they be able, without fear of losing these additional supports.

Basic income replaces money; it doesn’t replace needed supplies and services. With increased money, people with disabilities can decide for themselves how to meet needs that are often not met by the current system, such as service dogs or alternative therapies.

It’s time to treat people with disabilities with respect instead of paternalism and to address the inadequacies of the current system. The proposed federal Disability Benefit is an opportunity to do better. Will it measure up to a basic income? Let’s hope so.

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