With disability benefits, governments cannot get lost in complexity

Posted on May 31, 2024 in Inclusion Policy Context

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Maytree.com – Publications
May 31, 2024.   Alan Broadbent, Elizabeth McIsaac

When Jordan River Anderson was born, he had complex medical needs that kept him hospitalized for the first years of his life. When his doctors determined that he could move to his family home, he faced a different problem. Jordan was from Norway House Cree Nation, and because of his First Nations status, the Manitoba government and the federal government disagreed about who should pay for his home care supports. Jordan languished in the hospital for more than two years while they argued. He was still there when he passed away at age five. Because governments were squabbling about jurisdiction, Jordan never spent a day in the comfort and love of his family home.

What happened to this child and his family is tragic. It shows how badly things go when governments miss the point. It might be true that their jurisdictional obligations were unclear, and they eventually had to sort that out. But the first thing that needed to happen was for that child to get help.

Out of this tragedy came Jordan’s Principle. When someone requests services for a First Nations child, Jordan’s Principle requires that the child get that service immediately. Whichever government they contacted first should pay at the outset, and then different orders of government can sort out any jurisdictional or payment disputes later. The priority is clear: the needs of the child come first. But governments fought this legal obligation for years before the courts ruled against their protests.

If Jordan River Anderson’s story shows us what can go wrong, Jordan’s Principle shows us that we can do better by getting our priorities straight. We can find a way through by focusing on people and purpose, and on the government’s primary duty to protect our human rights.

This has been on our minds as we’ve been following the development of the Canada Disability Benefit (CDB). Will our governments get their priorities straight?

Focusing on people and purpose should guide the development of the CDB. The purpose of the CDB is to protect people with disabilities from poverty. The application process should strive to make it easy to identify the people who need this protection.

For example, while it might make bureaucratic sense to have separate application forms for different disability programs, it does not make sense to the person who needs the benefit. It is a burden for the applicant and for the busy medical professionals who have to fill out multiple forms with the same information about the same person. It’s all the more confusing when that same diagnosis makes someone eligible for one disability benefit but not another.

And if we follow the path laid out by our current disability benefits, that will happen. We don’t have one single, agreed-upon definition of “disability” that determines who qualifies for disability benefits. The eligibility criteria for provincial and territorial disability streams of social assistance vary from province to province, and don’t match what the federal government uses for the Canada Pension Plan-Disability benefit or the Disability Tax Credit (which don’t match each other, either).

To make sure the CDB gets to the people who need it, people who are already eligible for one disability support program should automatically be eligible for the CDB. The federal government should also work with disability communities to further improve this definition in the future, to cover more of the 1.1 million people with disabilities who are living in poverty.

The CDB will be a federal benefit for people living in poverty. At this time, only Manitoba has committed to letting social assistance recipients keep the full value of the CDB, which means the other provinces and territories are still thinking about clawing that money back. Presumably, they would do this to save money on their social assistance programs. In other words, to meet their own needs. Meanwhile, the reason that people need the CDB is that the social assistance system is doing such a poor job of supporting them in the first place. Clawing back that money will leave people in exactly the same poverty that they were in before. Focusing on people, in this case, means that people who receive social assistance and the CDB should keep the full amount of both.

With the Canada Disability Benefit, the federal government has an opportunity, together with the disability sector, to design a program that could substantially improve people’s lives and advance their human right to an adequate standard of living.

Developing this new benefit will no doubt raise difficult questions about definitions of disability, jurisdiction, and how different programs interact with each other. These are complex questions, and they are real issues that policy makers will have to work through. But they are not impossible. They are not an excuse for doing nothing, or for choosing to serve the needs of government rather than the needs of people.

In Jordan River Anderson’s story, we see what happens when governments get caught up in their own needs. A sick child and his family paid the price. Jordan’s Principle offers us clear principles, and a path for governments navigating complex problems towards solutions.

With the CDB, governments similarly need to find this path. Losing their way means that people with disabilities living in poverty will continue to pay the price.

With disability benefits, governments cannot get lost in complexity


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