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Disappointment widespread over budget's proposed $200-month disability benefit funding

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Advocacy groups across Canada are expressing widespread disappointment about the amount of funding earmarked in the 2024 federal budget for the long-awaited Canada Disability Benefit.

On Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland revealed that the Liberals were finally ready to roll out funding for this federal income supplement.

The government has allocated $6.1 billion over six years and $1.4 billion ongoing, including the costs to deliver the benefit. This funding would provide for a maximum benefit amount of $2,400 per year.

However, as stakeholders have been quick to realize, with the benefit estimated to be offered to 600,000 people with disabilities, the proposed maximum benefit would be just $200 per month, or as March of Dimes Canada estimates, "just $6.66 per day."

"This budget doesn't begin to fulfill the government's promise to lift people with disabilities out of poverty, let alone the 'promise of Canada' – a fair shot at a prosperous future," said March of Dimes Canada's President and CEO Len Baker, in a statement.

While celebrating the important step taken to launch this benefit, Daily Bread Food Bank CEO Neil Hetherington said there remains a "clear need" to increase payments.

"It is imperative that this program helps people with disabilities live above the poverty line," he said in a statement.

Forty-one per cent of low-income Canadians live with a disability and 16.5 per cent of the disabled people in Canada live in poverty, according to Disability Without Poverty. Reacting to the budget, the group's national director Rabia Khedr said this benefit was supposed to "offer real hope" but has instead fallen short.

Last week, an Angus Reid Institute survey indicated overwhelming support for the benefit but that just one-in-20 respondents were confident the government would follow through. 

Green Party co-leader Elizabeth May called the inclusion of this funding in the budget "check-box politics."

"It's there… But when you look at the details and say 'what, $200 a month? And not starting until July 2025, with further conditions for eligibility?' We called for an end to legislated poverty for people with disabilities. That's not in here," May said in her post-budget reaction press conference.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has also said he wants to get some clarity from the government on this funding before determining whether his party will back the Liberals on this budget.

"People waited for a year and a half for the disability benefit, and it's only $200, at a time when the cost of living is so high? What's the plan to increase that?" Singh said in an interview on CTV News Channel's Power Play on Tuesday.

In a November report exploring the potential costs of the new benefit, Canada's Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated that it would take up to $14,356 a year per person to close the gap between current social assistance people living with disabilities receive, and the poverty line. 

Groups are also concerned about the threshold for eligibility as outlined in the budget, warning that it will only cover fewer than half of those currently receiving disability income support.

Under the plan, low-income persons with disabilities between the ages of 18 and 64 who have a valid Disability Tax Credit (DTC) certificate will be eligible.

"Using the DTC as the only access point… is concerning when there are other valid ways to verify disability," said Baker added. "Asking people with disabilities to jump through additional hoops to access financial security benefits they’re entitled to is harmful and traumatizing."

Hetherington said expanded eligibility "will be necessary to effect meaningful change."

According to the budget, the government plans to issue the first payments in July 2025.

The budget also vows coverage for the cost of medical forms required to apply for this financial assistance, and to consult people with disabilities on the benefit's maximum income thresholds and phase-out rates.

However, "the benefit design will need to fit the investment proposed in Budget 2024."

Work has been underway on making this new stream of financial assistance a reality, for years.

After passing legislation in June of last year, by September Minister of Diversity, Inclusion and Persons with Disabilities Kamal Khera still couldn't say when it would come into effect, stating her focus was on getting it "right." This prompted petitions for an interim "emerge relief benefit" that never came to fruition.

Faced with questions on the subject on Parliament Hill on Wednesday Khera defended the plan as a "major milestone" and a "key benefit," but conceded it is a "starting point."

"There's always more to do but I will say, you know, if you look at the budget this is the largest single item that you will see, $6.1 billion. This is around building a social safety net around persons with disabilities," she said.

When pressed on whether the federal government will increase the benefit in the future, Khera wouldn't say.

The government has framed this federal income supplement as a legacy social policy that will help hundreds of thousands of low-income, working-age people with disabilities, meant to supplement existing provincial and territorial benefits.

However, ambiguity remains about the potential for cross-jurisdictional claw backs, with the federal government stating they are still calling on provinces and territories to agree to exempt the Canada Disability Benefit from counting as income in relation to qualifying for other supports.

On the premise that "every dollar matters to those living with a disability," the government states in the budget that it "aspires to see the combined amount of federal and provincial or territorial income supports for persons with disabilities grow to the level of Old Age Security (OAS) and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS)."

Questioned on her way in to a Liberal caucus meeting, MP Pam Damoff said the government is aware that advocates are disappointed and while she too would have liked to see additional funding, "it's more than we had before."

"It does open the doors of conversations with provinces and territories as well… They need to come to the table on this," said Damoff, who was one of the dozens of Liberal MPs who had written to Freeland before the budget asking for it to include funding for the benefit. 

"This isn't a sole federal responsibility to make sure people are not living in poverty. And I do get a little frustrated when everything is dumped on our backs. Provinces need to step up for some of the most vulnerable people in the country, and we're working to fill that gap, but it's not solely on our shoulders." 

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