By: Anastasia Volkov
The Canadian government implemented several income support programs to enable Canadians to meet basic needs while facing temporary or permanent job loss or hours reduction during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) was in place from March to October 2020. It was a “simple application process that made use of online accounts, coupled with a directive to administrators to wait until people’s lives had stabilized before assessing eligibility,” argues an article in Policy Options. In October, the federal government replaced CERB with specialized programs: Employment Insurance (EI), Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB), Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit (CRCB), and Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB). The Canadian Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) extended additional financial support for students with disabilities. However, none of the other programs effectively targeted the economic vulnerability of Canadians with disabilities, who under normal economic conditions already face a range of environmental, social, and attitudinal barriers impacting their employment situation. The issue remains. How can the Canadian federal government address the economic vulnerability of Canadians with disabilities, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Disability is a complex social construct used to describe a diverse set of experiences, including those related to pain, flexibility, mental health, and development. According to a January 2020 report by the Future Skills Centre, disability is often categorized by severity. “Of Canadians with disabilities, 37 percent are categorized as having a mild disability, while 20 percent have a moderate disability, 21 have a severe disability and 22 percent have a very severe disability.” Despite the ’duty to accommodate’ provision of the Canadian Human Rights Act, “many employers are hesitant to hire, retain and promote persons with disabilities.” Statistics Canada reports that Canadians living with severe disabilities are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than those living without disabilities. Additionally, a recent report released by Statistics Canada highlights that in 2017 only 37 percent of Canadians with disabilities relied exclusively on employment income; and out of the 63 percent collecting government support, 30 percent relied exclusively on non-employment income. The pandemic exacerbated this disparity in socio-economic outcomes with 36 percent of employed Canadians with disabilities reporting temporary or permanent job loss linked to the pandemic. In addition to the newly unemployed, those already living below the poverty line, on provincial disability or income assistance, were overlooked by the design of the federal COVID-19 response.
The Future Skills Centre identifies that approximately 6.2 million Canadians live with one or more disabilities. “While people with disabilities can achieve socially integrated, financially independent lives through secure, well-paid employment, they are often trapped in low-skill jobs.” In turn, the poverty rate among Canadians with disabilities is 40 percent higher than that of the non-disabled, and nearly 200 percent higher among those with severe disabilities. To open the second session of the 43rd Canadian Parliament, the 2020 Speech from the Throne identified pressing issues affecting Canadians, listed federal priorities and outlined how the government will work to achieve them. One of the issues identified in the Speech was the disproportionate effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on Canadians with disabilities, particularly in the area of economic vulnerability.
To compensate Canadians with disabilities for pandemic related expenses, the federal government announced a one-time, tax-free payment of up to $600.00 in June 2020. This restricted payment to valid Disability Tax Credit (DTC) certificate holders and beneficiaries of the federal, Quebec, or veterans’ disability pensions. While the government estimated the payment would reach 1.6 million Canadians – it did not, and was significantly criticized in the media for the bureaucratic red tape and its insignificant size in relation to the impact of the pandemic on the group. In addition, the federal government had planned to invest $15 million to support community-based organizations developing employability among Canadians with disabilities. The funding would support programs and training related to the acquisition of skills related to the realities of the changing work environment due to the pandemic. Despite these interventions, the financial needs of Canadians with disabilities appeared to have been neglected until the announcement of the Canadian Disability Benefit (CDB), alongside changes to the process for determining eligibility for disability related government programs in the 2020 Speech from the Throne.
While the exact details of the structure of the CDB are yet to be disclosed, it has been announced that it will be modelled after the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS). While the CDB promises to provide a baseline underneath current social assistance programs, if it is modelled after the GIS, it will not comprehensively address all Canadians with disabilities’ economic vulnerability and will further complicate service system navigation. The GIS is not taxable, is based on income, and is available to low-income Old Age Security (OAS) recipients. Since OAS underpins GIS, it is unclear which program will be chosen to provide the base amount for CDB. Since GIS is directed at seniors, it does not have special provisions for individuals with dependants. If GIS is the model of CDB, dependants will likely be left out of the formula. Finally, it is unclear how the CDB will interact with the other 14 income security and tax programs in Canada or support sponsored immigrants.
To address the shortcomings of the proposed approach, the federal government should seek provincial support to develop a collaborative arrangement, which would melt the existing myriad of social assistance into one income tested Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI) for all Canadian adults with disabilities. For seniors, GBI would flow along side OAS and GIS. Applicants would report their income from all sources on a monthly basis, similar to CERB. This would allow for income tax to be withheld on a rolling basis and for the GBI to be gradually adjusted to changes in an individual’s income. The GBI will ensure responsive financial security to volatile employment conditions and eliminate confusion about eligibility, where and how to apply for support.
Anastasia Volkov is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. Her primary interests are in urban and social policy. Anastasia holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Public Policy and City Studies from the University of Toronto Scarborough, and she currently serves as an Editor-in-Chief for the PPG+Review, and one of the Directors of the Consulting Careers Initiative @ Munk.