Disability Benefits and Basic Income
Tracey lives in Lindsay, one of the cities chosen for Ontario’s Basic Income Pilot project; she and her husband were eligible for the pilot and were among the first to enroll. With the promised stability of three years of basic income, which was about double the amount she received on Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), Tracey was able to get a line of credit to start her own natural skin care business. When the basic income pilot project was prematurely cancelled by the newly elected provincial government of Doug Ford, and Tracey was forced to return to ODSP, she was left holding a lot of debt.
Tracey is in her late 40s, with chronic health problems that flare up unexpectedly and leave her incapacitated for a few days at a time. She has been on the Ontario Disability Support Program for most of her life because she would need to take time off work when her illness suddenly worsens. Few employers can be that flexible.
Working age Canadians with disabilities are much less likely to be employed, and twice as likely to live in poverty as the general population. In her video, Tracey speaks of the sense of entrapment commonly experienced by those on social assistance, also known as “the welfare wall.”
The welfare wall refers to a set of factors that keep people trapped on social assistance because they would be financially worse off if they leave welfare for low-wage employment. The welfare wall includes a high tax back rate on any part-time employment earnings; supplementary health and dental benefits that disappear once no longer eligible to be on social assistance; and the cost of work-related necessities such as clothing, transportation, and child care. Tracey refers to another aspect of entrapment common to all those living in poverty: while her and her husband’s combined incomes have allowed them to purchase and maintain a small home, the inadequacy of her social assistance benefits and his low wages, combined with rising housing costs, means that neither of them can afford to live on their own.
There have been calls for a basic income specifically for people with disabilities; critics of this idea argue that it would reinforce the unfair, arbitrary, and moralistic distinction between the so-called “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Those on disability support programs speak of a long and arduous process of being approved to be eligible for disability benefits and their fear of losing them once approved. The rigid distinction built into these programs between “able-bodied” and “disabled” doesn’t allow for the fluidity of conditions that are sometimes disabling and sometimes not, or the ways in which “disability” is socially organized, not a condition necessarily attached to an individual.
Others have called basic income a cruel plan to “rip away” supports from people with disabilities; no basic income advocate in Canada would agree to that. The Basic Income Canada Network has called for no one to be worse off under a basic income program and to keep programs that are working. Some people with disabilities might need extra assistance; others would prefer to ditch the paternalism and limited options currently available to those on disability support programs like ODSP. The Ontario Basic Income Pilot (OBIP) project included up to an extra $6000 per year, on top of the basic amount, for those with disabilities. At a 2018 Hamilton forum featuring OBIP participants, some spoke with pride about new eye glasses and assistive devices that they had purchased since going on OBIP. Formerly on Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), they no longer had to endure the often protracted ODSP approvals process, and were no longer limited to the designated options covered under the ODSP health benefits plan.
As an income floor below which no one could fall, basic income could be a foundational component of a renewed social safety net designed to provide the conditions in which we can all thrive. Basic income is no silver bullet; we will still need other social programs like affordable childcare, public transit, social housing, and an expanded Medicare that includes dental care, and pharmacare. Some people with disabilities may need extra supports, other than money. But as a cash transfer program that is conditional only on income, basic income is flexible enough to adapt to individuals’ unique and changing circumstances and needs.
For more information:
Caledon Institute of Social Policy
Ontario Basic Income Network
Basic Income Canada Network