FFWD REW

Advocates call for AISH increase

Politicians agree (sort of) to live on meagre AISH payments

Advocates for the province’s severely disabled persons are challenging Alberta politicians to live on $1188 a month — the maximum amount 40000 Albertans receive through the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped program.

If politicians accept the challenge — which would mean living far below the poverty line — only then will they truly understand the financial hardships facing the disabled and perhaps have the drive to overhaul the program says Bonnie Pacaud chairperson of the Calgary Ability Network.

“We sometimes hear that AISH is the best program in Canada but our argument for that is: ‘How does living on $1188 a month make that a good program when people have zero money or below zero at the end of the month for anything even a toothbrush?’” asks Pacaud. “That’s not a good program; it’s not even close to a good program.”

In addition to a monthly maximum of $1188 AISH recipients can earn up to $400; after that point the province will deduct 50 per cent of the earned wages as well as a handful of heath benefits. Pacaud wants the province to raise AISH payments by $347 a month and incrementally increase the amount to the cost of living index which can be funded by scrapping subsidies.

“If AISH is increased we’re not going to need all the subsidies” says Pacaud. “The subsidies are Band-Aids because AISH is so low. We need to look at how much it costs to administer a subsidy and just say ‘We can just give that money to the people themselves.’”

Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith says the province is wasting millions of dollars each year on “excessive administration” and it punishes AISH recipients who are able to earn some money.

“Right now there’s such a disincentive for those with developmental disabilities to work because they end up losing the support that they get through AISH” says Smith. “Even if they are able to earn enough income to support themselves they lose their ability to get benefits to help defray some of their medical costs.”

Many non-profit and charitable groups feel hamstrung by multiple overlapping government departments says Smith. “It’s leading many people to feel the goal of the bureaucracy is to prevent people from accessing the programs that they need rather than facilitate access to the programs they need” she says.

Alberta’s minister of Seniors and Community Services says AISH payments have increased five times since 2005 when payments were $850 a month and recipients also have coverage for prescription drugs dental care essential diabetic supplies and eyeglasses.

“For every dollar that the AISH budget goes up it’s another $600000 a year so for every $50 per month that the AISH budget goes up per person is $30 million” says Mary Anne Jablonski.

Advocates for the severely handicapped realize asking to increase the AISH budget is a tough sell to a government that’s facing a $5-billion deficit amongst growing calls from fiscal hawks to rein in spending.

“We understand that it’s a huge ask at this time within this budget” says Pacaud. “But as long as it’s staged in and we have a target within three to four years even people would be happy to see that happening.”

It took 32-year-old Mary Salvani two years of doctors’ visits referrals and filing government forms before the province OK’d her AISH application. Salvani suffers from cerebral palsy attention-deficit disorder and a learning disability that hampers her from recognizing non-verbal cues. The province asked her to re-take a learning assessment test “just in case my disability suddenly disappeared” she says adding “That was what they wrote.”

Salvani lives with her parents both in their 60s (her father is legally blind) in a cold energy-leaking house that has no insulation. Lacy her 10-year-old Shih Tzu is trained to sense when Salvani is becoming unhinged. “I have a tendency to hit my head when I’m upset” she says. “That’s why she tries to get help before I get to that point.”

“I do want to live on my own” she says. “I’ve been trying to find a house or apartment to rent but that’s been really hard because the cost of rent is too high.”

According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) no more than 30 per cent of gross household income should be spent on rent. Using this formula AISH recipients shouldn’t spend more than $356.40 on monthly rent. However the CMHC says the average bachelor suite in Calgary costs $711 a month — about 60 per cent of an AISH recipient’s maximum monthly payment.

Colleen Huston with the Disability Action Hall points out that some AISH recipients can’t afford the city’s low income $40 transit pass which leaves many isolated in their homes and communities. Some even sit in dark homes at night to keep their electric bill down — that way they can afford a “luxury item” such as meat.

“We’ve got a minister who knows there are some problems but it doesn’t take rocket science to know that most of your money is gone to your shelter” says Huston.

Brad Robertson 58 was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and autism spectrum disorder 18 years ago. His $700 monthly rent eats up two-thirds of his AISH payment. The rest goes to basics: food utilities and a transit pass. “It adds up pretty fast” he says. “It doesn’t leave you anything for clothes.”

Jablonski says her department and Premier Ed Stelmach have worked very hard to ensure there won’t be cuts to the AISH program in the upcoming budget.

“I don’t think there is any appetite to decrease any of the AISH rates that we have right now” she says.

Increases to AISH payments won’t likely happen anytime soon and the government isn’t about to implement rent controls so that landlords are restricted from jacking up rental fees. “We believe that if there is enough supply those kinds of controls with happen automatically in the system” says Jablonski.

*****

Fast Forward Weekly asked a fistful of provincial policymakers and political party leaders if they will accept the challenge of living on $1188 for one month just as 40000 severely disabled Albertans do every month.

Seniors and Community Services Minister Mary Ann Jablonski:

“Yes I could. But then I’d have to ask do I get to do the job that I have to do within that amount of money because I’m of course travelling around the province frequently. I’m not sure that I could stay within those amounts if I was performing my job.”

Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith:

“I think I’d accept the challenge. I’d love to give that a try. I wonder how I would do that because I have two properties now because I have to live in Edmonton part of the month and then in Calgary. The hardest part for me would be staying within a food budget.”

Liberal Leader Dr. David Swann:

“If there’s something I could do to highlight that further because it’s an absolute disgrace in this province that we have people at half the poverty line and wondering why they can’t make it. I’m not sure how this would work but I’m intrigued. I don’t want to say I’m going to do something and then not do it. But I’m intrigued by it and if there is some way I can help to highlight the plight of these people I want to do it.”

NDP Leader Brian Mason:

“I would have to know more about the challenge and how it would work. I would need some time to talk that over with my staff and my wife.”

Email: thowell@ffwd.greatwest.ca

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