BC’s Disability Survival Trap

·15 min read

Moving in with a partner is usually an exciting step in a relationship, one that also brings financial benefits as costs for things like housing are shared.

But the prospect filled Shawn with dread.

Shawn has been on provincial disability assistance for many years. As a single person, they receive about $1,183 per month. More than $1,000 of that went to rent a room in a pet-friendly Victoria, B.C. suite where they could have a dog.

But after a roommate moved out and rent increased in 2018, Shawn could not pay all the rent alone. Moving in with their partner became the only feasible choice.

But living together could be costly, evidence of what the provincial government calls a “marriage-like relationship.” And that brings serious financial consequences for people on disability assistance like Shawn.

In B.C., a single person who receives disability assistance can make up to $15,000 per year without affecting their benefits, known as an allowable earnings exemption. Any amount above that is clawed back from disability benefit payments. That rises to $18,000 for a family with two adults where only one is on assistance.

But the total earnings of both partners in a marriage-like relationship count towards this total, because benefits are allocated by household.

That means Shawn’s partner’s income could be counted along with any of their own income. If the combined income exceeds $18,000, Shawn’s benefits could be cut.

Shawn’s partner does not receive assistance and works outside the home, but in a high cost-of-living area their income alone could not support the couple.

Shawn said it leaves them and many others with a stark choice — go ahead and move in with a partner and hide the relationship, or live alone in deep poverty.

“That form of structural violence, it limits our ability to have relationships,” said Shawn. “It criminalizes poverty and disability because we have to make a choice: do we follow the rules and be homeless?”

Shawn and other people who receive provincial disability assistance say the rules are symptoms of a system that polices their lives and treats them as less deserving and independent than able-bodied British Columbians.

They note that last week’s increase in assistance rates still leaves them below the poverty line. The $175 increase is less than the $300 a month in COVID-19 emergency aid they had been receiving until Dec. 31.

Shawn and others say a government expert panel report that recommended against a universal basic income in B.C. killed the possibility of much-needed transformational change for people with disabilities.

“As marginalized people trying to fit within a system that is failing us the way B.C.’s is, we are not able to advocate for ourselves when we live through as much of the structural violence that is going on within the system, which is quite severe,” said Shawn. “And that is one of the big issues that I found with the failure to recommend a universal basic income.”

Shawn, who’s in their 40s, went ahead and moved in with their partner. But they haven’t reported the change to the province and keep the information secret from most people to prevent their benefits from being cut. The Tyee is using another name and withholding some identifying details to protect their financial security.

Shawn said it’s exhausting to hide such an important part of their life, but it’s the only way they can afford to live close to specialized care they require for neurological conditions and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Assistance rates currently allocate $375 for shelter, a budget nearly impossible to match outside of limited subsidized housing. In Victoria, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment is more than $1,600.

Shawn pays less than half of the rent and shared expenses like groceries while living with their partner, which allows them to afford medications and some small comforts.

But the arrangement puts pressure on their relationship, both financially and emotionally. A previous relationship ended in large part because they couldn’t get married because Shawn would be at risk of losing assistance benefits.

“It steals my dignity,” they said. “It puts a block in our relationship, to be honest, and how deep that relationship can go.”

“I’m not the only one doing this to survive.”

The Tyee spoke to two others in similar situations who did not want to go on the record for fear of losing income or housing.

All three agreed that the lack of support — not their conditions or disabilities — makes their lives so difficult.

Shawn and others The Tyee spoke to also can’t bring up these issues during government consultations or to case workers without risking their incomes.

Heather McCain, executive director of Creating Accessible Neighbourhoods in Vancouver, said the system makes disabled people and others on income assistance choose between breaking the law or losing their housing and support system. It forces them into hiding.

For those on income assistance, where rates are much lower and earnings exemptions range from $6,000 to just over $10,000 annually, the risk can be even more necessary.

“People feel like they have to hide relationships in order to survive,” said McCain, who lives with invisible and visible disabilities.

It comes down to sub-poverty-level assistance rates, McCain said. The rates are not enough to live on, especially for someone with costly medical needs that often aren’t covered by provincial health plans, they noted. Counselling, medications, physiotherapy and assistive technologies are all essential to a good quality of life, but only a fraction are covered, if at all.

And allocating benefits based on household income rather than individual earnings forces disabled people to be financially dependent on their partner, or assumes they have family support that many do not.

“The idea that somebody looks after them is very paternalistic,” said McCain, “in keeping with kind of a charity model of other people looking after disabled people as opposed to disabled people looking after themselves.”

McCain works with a lot of people who are unable to leave abusive and unhealthy relationships because they have lost access to benefits and need their partner’s income to survive, or because they know they could not afford to live on their benefits alone.

It’s a dynamic that worsens the disproportionately high rates of intimate partner violence and fraud disabled people face, particularly disabled women. About 60 per cent of them will face some form of violence in their lifetime.

The only times McCain has seen people able to leave these kinds of situations has been when family or friends could help pay for the costs of moving and living while the person waited for their benefits to be reinstated.

The risk of being cut off benefits goes beyond lost income, McCain noted. It could also mean losing a place in subsidized housing or programs that provide employment supports and reduced rates for transit passes — essentially losing an entire ecosystem of supports.

McCain would like people to remain eligible for their subsidized housing and other services for a year or longer after they start working or are no longer eligible for assistance. It would help them plan for the future without being punished for working.

And for those who are unable to work, higher rates would assure quality of life not dependent on their labour, McCain noted.

Andrew Robb, a staff lawyer with the Disability Alliance of BC’s Law Clinic, said people trying to protect their benefits by proving they aren’t in a marriage-like relationship make up a significant number of the clinic’s cases.

“The complaint we often hear is, ‘If I weren’t disabled, I could be employed, I would keep income regardless of my spouse, but because I’m disabled, my income is dependent on my spouse,’” said Robb. “It makes them think twice about whether they can get into a relationship at all, because it reduces their independence in a way that leaves them fewer choices.”

The province considers a relationship marriage-like if two people are socially and financially interdependent, Robb explained.

Evidence of that can be how they share household expenses, whether they share a bedroom or how they present themselves to landlords or family, he said.

Recently, the province increased the length of time a couple could live together before it would investigate whether a relationship was marriage-like from three to 12 months.

It was a win for many, Robb said, but tying benefits to an individual’s income rather than a household would have more impact.

“It takes time to get benefits if you have to restart the process. A person is really most vulnerable when they’re most in need,” said Robb. “I can’t condone someone not reporting their relationship to the ministry, but I certainly understand why people feel compelled to make those choices.”

In an interview, Social Development and Poverty Reduction Minister Nicholas Simons said relationship secrecy is an issue he became aware of more than 30 years ago when he was a financial assistance worker.

“I did remember hearing about issues like that. And I know that policy has evolved, but I think, mostly for the better,” said Simons, who would not speak to what the ministry was considering to address these issues.

“I’m going to look into that as well, because that’s really tied very directly to that issue of dependence.”

Many of those choices about what to disclose have become even more dire for the 137,000 people on disability assistance during the pandemic, which introduced a new level of uncertainty.

Last week, the province announced it would end the monthly pandemic top-up to benefits. It had provided $300 a month from April until December 2020 and $150 from January to March 2021.

In its place, Simons announced a permanent increase of $175 per month.

“This is the largest permanent increase, and the third increase since we formed government in 2017,” he said. “It’s the largest single increase in the history of British Columbia.”

But even with the increase, an individual with no children like Shawn will receive $1,358, approximately $300 less than the poverty line in Canada, defined by the market basket measure used by Statistics Canada. And it is $661 less than the $2,019 per month Statistics Canada says is the poverty line for a single adult living in a B.C. city of more than 100,000 people.

The market basket measure compares the cost of a bundle of essential goods and services, like housing and transportation, in a particular community to an individual or household’s income to determine whether or not they live in poverty.

In Canada, about 13.5 per cent of disabled people live in poverty, just above the national poverty rate of 11 per cent, according to Statistics Canada. But the poverty rate nearly triples to 28 per cent for people whose disabilities are severe and prevent them from working. About one in five people, or 6.2 million, in the country are disabled.

The province’s decision to halve the $300 monthly top-up in January triggered a suicidal episode for Shawn. “There was no way of planning my life or my finances when they took away $150.”

The rates are a slap in the face, says Shawn. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit introduced during the pandemic provided newly unemployed Canadians with $500 a week or $2,167 a month — 60 per cent more than people on disability assistance receive.

“People on disability assistance have been living in an emergency for years, decades, their entire lives, before this pandemic,” said Shawn. “It’s not like their lives have improved during the pandemic. Costs have gone up.”

When the pandemic hit, Shawn left their part-time job due to stress that made it difficult for them to think clearly or walk. They qualified for the $2,000-per-month CERB, but not the one-time $1,000 provincial supplement, simply because they were on disability assistance.

“And because I’m not well enough to go back to work, I don’t receive any of the federal programs that came in to replace CERB,” they added.

CERB was the closest thing to a large-scale basic income Canada has seen in quite some time and has since been transitioned into the country’s pre-existing employment insurance system which requires recipients to search for a job.

But in its January report to the government on the possibility of a universal basic income in B.C., an academic expert panel opted instead to recommend sweeping reforms to the existing social safety net.

Among them was a targeted basic income for certain populations, like disabled people, those fleeing domestic violence and youth aging out of care.

Disability assistance rates should be raised by $500 per month to reach the poverty line, the report recommended, and universal extended health benefits should be provided to all low-income people.

Shawn was heartened to see the recommendations.

But the proposed changes don’t go far enough in addressing the structural violence of a disability assistance system that is, in their view, beyond reform and needs to be entirely replaced.

Problems include the process for deciding who qualifies for benefits in the first place, which often requires medical documentation and other proof that is expensive and time-consuming to procure. It took Shawn nearly a year to obtain the form to even apply for benefits he was eligible to receive.

Lindsay Tedds, an economist at the University of Calgary who co-authored the basic income panel report, said its recommendations aimed to make disability assistance more flexible and accessible.

They recommended people with substance use disorders, addiction and mental health challenges be eligible for benefits as well.

“You’re going to have times in your life where you can work, and not work, and you should be able to move in and out of the system flexibly without being kicked out,” Tedds said in response to a question from The Tyee at an online panel on basic income. “You should be able to work without your benefits being clawed back.”

After the report was released, the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction said it would take the 65 recommendations into consideration in its planning and preparations for the April budget.

Simons declined to say which specific recommendations would be incorporated into the coming budget, which is set for April 20.

“My interest and the interest of my government is to continue to find… ways and strategies that will continue to reduce our poverty rates,” he said.

But the government’s decision to cancel the $300 COVID-19 increase casts doubt on the province’s commitment to ending poverty for disabled people, said Shawn and others The Tyee spoke to.

Simons said the province wanted a permanent increase to give people receiving assistance “predictability” as vaccination efforts ramp up and B.C. sets its sights on a post-pandemic reality.

Simons did not respond directly when asked why the province didn’t increase permanent rates by the same $300 or the panel’s recommended $500 after a crisis he acknowledged has disproportionately affected people on assistance or who are low-income.

“I would love to be aiming as high as possible to have a positive impact on people living on disability assistance or on income assistance,” he said, “and knowing that the challenges that exist and that the recovery needs to be strong and needs to provide resilience, I think a permanent increase was what was necessary.”

Simons pointed to the B.C. poverty reduction strategy, TogetherBC, which targets a 25-per-cent reduction of overall poverty by 2024 as evidence of the province’s commitment to poverty alleviation.

But he would not commit to raising assistance rates to the poverty level while in office. “Our TogetherBC strategy sets out our goals and our timelines.”

McCain and Shawn both want to see meaningful, confidential and truly accessible consultation with the end users of programs.

And Shawn wants an independent third-party review into the harm done to people by the current system with power to make recommendations that are binding on government.

People on disability can’t safely critique the system “because it puts us in a position of instability and risk,” they said. “My life would be very different if I got help.”

Shawn has a bachelor’s degree and has worked in a variety of jobs before their conditions made it impossible to work full time.

They thought of pursuing further education. But that would have required student loans and the loan funding for housing would be counted as income and could have resulted in a clawback of disability benefits. The risk of taking on loan debt was too great.

Shawn knows people with disabilities are 3.5 times as likely to consider suicide because of the challenging — but solvable — circumstances they face.

“I’m a law-abiding person, I’m a person who wants to contribute positively to society,” said Shawn. “It hurts me every day to be put in a position where my survival is based on committing fraud.

“Am I a bad person for that? The provincial government thinks so."

Moira Wyton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee