Editorial: Give bus passes back to disabled

Now you see it, now you don’t. That describes the $77-a-month increase in the disability allowance for thousands of British Columbians who now have to pay for monthly bus passes they once received for free or at a small cost. The cost of the bus pass will eat up most of the increase.

It’s a mean-spirited move. The province should acknowledge its error and restore the bus-pass program.

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The increase in the disability allowance — announced last week as part of Budget 2016 — is modest, but given that the allowance has not been increased since 2007, it was a welcome move on the part of the government.

(Incidentally, 2007 was the year MLAs voted themselves a 29 per cent increase in pay, along with an automatic annual cost-of-living increase. Basic MLA remuneration is now $102,878.)

The good the allowance increase could have done has been largely wiped out, because the province has slashed the bus-pass subsidy and will deduct the cost of bus passes from monthly cheques. That means for about 35,000 people receiving bus passes, the net increase will be only $25 a month. For about 20,000 people receiving a special transportation subsidy, the increase will be $11.

Finance Minister Mike de Jong says it’s about fairness. Of the 100,000 who receive disability allowances, 47,000 don’t receive transportation subsidies — they either live in areas without public transit or just don’t use it for their own reasons.

“We think all British Columbians, no matter where they live, deserve to have their need to move about taken into account,” de Jong said.

Rather than provide a transportation subsidy that benefits only some, the province will give all clients an extra monthly benefit of up to $77, “and the freedom to make their own choice about how to meet their own unique transportation needs,” he said.

It’s a variance on the dog-in-the-manger theme: If some can’t or choose not to use the transportation subsidy, then no one gets it.

The bus pass is a lifeline for those most in need of a lifeline. It helps them to be part of the community, getting them to church, to the library, to see friends and so forth. Independence is crucial for many people dealing with disabilities, and the bus pass greatly enhances that independence. It likely reduced the risk of depression and illness.

These people are getting by on less than $1,000 a month for housing, transportation, food and everything else they need. The $77 increase is far less than the rate of inflation, so it’s highly unlikely it would have been spent on luxuries. Even without the bus pass, allowance recipients will see a loss in their spending power.

The claim that these people can use the increase to pay the higher fee is callous. It would be a bit harsh to quote Ebenezer Scrooge here (“Are there no prisons? And the union workhouses — are they still in operation?”) but still, the government’s move has a Dickensian air about it. There seems to be a disregard for how desperate these lives are.

It doesn’t help to try to dress it up with de Jong’s: “I don’t think this makes life easier but, hopefully, it makes it a little less hard.”

The government must balance the demands on its budget with the need to be fiscally responsible, a challenging task. But few of us would begrudge those on the disability allowance a small increase. Don’t give hope with one hand and take it away with the other.

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