The B.C. government says about 3,500 people with disabilities have given up their bus passes rather than pay a new $52-a-month fee.
That represents 10 per cent of the 35,000 people with disabilities who formerly received a bus pass at a cost of $45 a year.
The province began charging the new bus-pass fee Sept. 1, when it raised disability assistance rates to $983 from $906 a month — the first increase in nine years.
The people who gave up their pass will receive the full $77 raise, while those who opted to pay the bus-pass fee will get the pass plus an extra $25 on their cheque each month.
The previous $45 annual fee has been waived.
The Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation says the statistics will fluctuate, since people can opt in or out of the bus-pass program at any time.
Faith Bodnar, executive director of Inclusion B.C., said the fact that most people with disabilities decided to pay the new $52 monthly fee shows they rely on public transit to maintain their independence.
And she expressed concern that some people have forfeited that independence in order to pay for food and other necessities.
“The rates are so shamefully low, we know what people will do with that money,” she said. “They’ll pay their rent or they’ll eat. When you’re living on that kind of money, there’s no choice.”
The result, however, is that those same people with disabilities will become more isolated and suffer physical or mental-health consequences as a result, she said.
Kelly Newhook of the Together Against Poverty Society in Victoria said the dire situation facing many people underscores the fact that B.C.’s disability-assistance rates remain too low.
“When you have kept people with disabilities in poverty for so long, you need to raise rates in general,” she said.
“You can’t raise the rates and then take away a bus pass.”
Social Development Minister Michelle Stilwell has defended the changes, arguing that the new rates and bus-pass fee create fairness.
Previously, about 45,000 people were living on $906 a month with no bus pass or transportation support, while 55,000 people received either a bus pass or a $66-a-month transportation allowance.
Now, everyone gets the same amount and can choose to buy the pass or keep their entire $77-a-month increase, the government said.
“Our government is investing an additional $170 million to raise assistance rates for people with disabilities in B.C. and to ensure that all 100,000 people receiving disability assistance have equal access to transportation supports,” Stilwell said in a statement.
But B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan said it’s “cold-hearted” for the Liberals to start charging for bus passes depended upon by so many people.
“If you can’t get bus service in Port Renfrew, that doesn’t mean you should deny people bus service on Renfrew Street in Vancouver,” he said.
“I don’t know why they went that way and I don’t know why they’ve held to the position.
“I think that we could have done both. We could have increased the basic pension for people with disabilities and continued to allow those who needed or used public transportation to continue to have a bus pass.”