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B.C. likely to hike assistance for disabled

People with disabilities could see a further increase in their assistance rates next year, as the B.C. government tries to blunt criticism of its new disability bus-pass fee. Finance Minister Mike de Jong said a projected $2.

People with disabilities could see a further increase in their assistance rates next year, as the B.C. government tries to blunt criticism of its new disability bus-pass fee.

Finance Minister Mike de Jong said a projected $2.2-billion surplus will allow government to address the needs of the province’s vulnerable citizens in the upcoming budget.

“That is clearly going to be a priority,” he said.

De Jong said the government has to be cautious about assuming that the surplus will repeat itself year after year.

“But we are in a position where we can — and we will — look at the challenges our most disadvantaged citizens are facing and in a better position to address that [and] try to make life a little bit easier for them,” he said.

De Jong made similar comments in releasing Budget 2016, but the $77-a-month increase that he announced at the time was soon overshadowed by controversy surrounding a new fee for the disability bus pass.

Under changes that took effect Sept. 1, the government raised disability assistance rates to $983 a month from $906 — the first increase in nine years.

But government also introduced a new $52-a-month fee for a bus pass that previously cost $45 a year.

If people chose to keep their pass and pay the fee, they were left with an extra $25 a month.

The government defended the move, saying the previous system was unfair because 45,000 people were living on $906 a month with no additional transportation support, while 55,000 people received their assistance cheque plus a $52 bus pass or a $66-a-month transportation allowance. The changes put everyone on an equal footing, the government said.

The Opposition and disability advocates, however, characterized the move as a “clawback” and argued that the increase merely highlighted the dire circumstances facing some of the province’s most vulnerable people.

Faith Bodnar, executive director of Inclusion B.C., said her organization and other advocacy groups continue to press for substantive increases in disability rates in the coming budget.

“We’ve stuck to the position that we need at least $1,500 a month in benefits,” she said. “I don’t know what they’re going to put on the table.”

She said the Ministry of Social Development has asked advocacy groups to work with government, and she said Inclusion B.C. has respected that request.

“But we are going to push pretty hard to get what’s reasonable,” she said.

“I think $1,500 a month is even low for B.C. … And we want it indexed to the cost of inflation, as well.”

Michael Prince, Lansdowne professor of social policy at the University of Victoria, said the increase in the last budget failed to cover the money that persons with disabilities lost to inflation in the past seven or eight years.

“And I think they lost any political credit they thought they’d get because of the whole bus pass and transportation subsidy [issue],” he said.

Prince noted that Premier Christy Clark has pledged to make B.C. the most progressive jurisdiction in Canada for people with disabilities by 2024.

“If you wanted the most progressive — and by that I mean adequate — benefits for people with disabilities in the country, they’ve got a ways to go,” he said.

He said a recent report by the Caledon Institute of Social Policy shows B.C. trailing Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec when measuring welfare incomes for a person with a disability and accounting for inflation.

Prince said he would like to see de Jong announce a meaningful increase this year, commit to further increases in the next two years if the B.C. Liberals win the election and index the rate to inflation.

“If we can’t do it in these sorts of fiscal times, it will never happen,” he said. “And we will never truly be hitting the premier’s vision of the most progressive jurisdiction by 2024.”

lkines@timescolonist.com