Restrictions on assets and gifts keep many in a state of deep and profound uncertainty and crisis.
A version of this commentary appeared in the Toronto Star, the Huffington Post and the Waterloo Region Record
In August 2016, Ontario’s Ombudsman released “Nowhere to Turn,” a report outlining multiple systemic failures in provincial supports and services that lead to crisis for many adults with developmental disabilities. The stories illustrated in the report are often heart-breaking and speak to the many ways that our current system leaves many persons with disabilities vulnerable and trapped in poverty.
I experienced this first hand. My mother died suddenly in 2015 leaving me as the primary support person for my brother, an adult with Down syndrome. I soon understood from this new perspective that the social safety net for those with disabilities is inadequate and tenuous.
What disability supports is my brother entitled to from the government?
Each province has their own disability benefits program and the rates and benefits vary. In Ontario, a single adult on disability benefits can receive a base rate of up to $1128 a month to live through the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) as well as support for drug, dental and disability related costs. Sounds ok at first glance – until you look at the cost of living.
In Ontario, this monthly living allowance amount doesn’t go far.
The average cost of rent for a bachelor apartment in Ontario is $856 per month, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Statistics Canada reports the average cost of food per month for an individual is $511. So, without even considering transportation, telephone and other basic living costs, it is evident that government support is not an adequate means of subsistence.
In larger urban centres like Toronto, where the cost of living is higher, the inadequacy of the support is compounded. Toronto Daily Bread Food Bank’s 2016 Hunger Report noted that 33 percent of its food bank users are persons receiving ODSP.
Many essentials for living cannot be attained on the funds the government provides individuals with disabilities. This means that some of their basic needs — safe and accessible housing, clothing, recreational expenses, fee-for-service related disability supports, nutritious food, transportation and accessibility related costs — go unmet.
Many individuals struggle with poverty alone, but for others, like my brother, there are family members who wants to offer financial help so he can avoid having to live in poverty.
But here’s the rub. Individuals on ODSP aren’t even allowed much help from loved ones.
A person on disability benefits is only able to hold a limit of up to $5,000 dollars in assets and a $6,000 limit in the gifts they receive each year — including gifts for basic living, such as food or a bus pass or tickets to community outings, and including gifts from family. This means that even if loved ones want to provide partial support or a helping hand, they are not permitted by the system above $6,000 (or $500 a month), without an interruption of benefits.*
These restrictions on assets and gifts serve as an ironclad poverty trap that keep many persons with disabilities in a state of deep and profound uncertainty and crisis. They also impact the individual over the long-term by preventing them from successfully transitioning to employment and planning for the future.
This is why over the past few months, a coalition of disability, mental health, poverty and community organizations, as well as individuals, have come together to ask the Government of Ontario to make a simple regulatory change.
We ask that Ontario raise the asset cap from $5,000 to $100,000 and eliminate the current gift limit of $6,000 for those receiving disability supports.
Allowing an increase on the assets and gifts a person on disability can access will make their lives safer, healthier — and allow them to dodge the bullet of profound crisis that already affect so many.
There is also a precedent for this change.
In 2015, the Government of British Columbia raised their asset level limit for those receiving disability benefits from $5,000 to $100,000 and removed the gift limit altogether. And Alberta has had an asset limit of $100,000 for some time. Why? Because restricting individuals with disability from accessing resources from their loved ones keeps them heavily dependent on government support, negatively impacts their quality of life and prevents persons with disabilities from attaining full economic citizenship.
A change in our provincial regulations would align with what is allowed federally. Recipients of the Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP) are permitted to access their funds — a combination of personal (family) savings and government grants — without limit, once it has vested, in order to enhance their quality of life.
It’s time Ontario caught up.
Changing the regulations around gifts and assets would not remove all of the financial barriers those with disabilities face and it would not address the unmet needs of many individuals. But it would provide opportunities for more support for a significant number of individuals while not putting any pressure on government resources.
Helen Ries is a sibling caregiver, a community activist and an independent consultant. She is also a Contributor to EvidenceNetwork.ca. She is working to create better systems to support vulnerable, excluded and underrepresented populations. www.helenries.ca.
Jihan Abbas is an independent scholar, consultant, and activist. She holds a PhD in sociology and her work aims to build a more inclusive society. @JihanAbbas
*The Ontario 2017 increased the limits some:
-Raised the asset limits from $5,000 to $40,000 for single individuals and from $7,500 to $50,000 for couples;
-Increased the income exemption for gifts and voluntary payments from $6,000 to $10,000 annually;
-Exempted gifts if the funds are used to pay for first and last month’s rent, purchasing a principal residence or buying a vehicle