The 2024 Federal budget debate rolled out last week and along with it the message tracks of the political parties. For the Liberals it was all about fairness for the younger generations, while the Conservatives were fixated on deficits and their impact on inflation. The New Democrats focussed on corporate greed and the Bloc worried about the feds spending money on programs in provincial jurisdiction.

None of those rhetorical preoccupations had any direct or immediate impact on people, but there were at least two budget measures that did. One, the proposed increase in taxation of capital gains, will affect the wealthy and powerful. The other, a much-diminished disability benefit, will hurt and disappoint some of our most vulnerable citizens. 

The media-amplified whining on behalf of the first group – an estimated 40,000 people – was pervasive. Tech bros predicted the increase in the capital gains tax will cause suffering among innovators and entrepreneurs. The Ontario Medical Association said doctors who incorporate will be hurt and this will affect access to patient care. And even though the Finance Minister insisted it will hit only the very wealthy, commentators conjured up a hypothetical middle class victim, forced to pay a higher tax rate if the sale of their cottage yields a capital gain in excess of $250,000.      

According to some pundits, that over-heated response on behalf of the haves, combined with a suite of policies to appeal to hard-pressed Millennials and Gen Zers, was exactly what the Liberals wanted. And even though Poilievre and company did not take the bait and jump directly to the defence of the capital gains complainers, that did not stop Justin Trudeau from pre-emptively accusing the Conservatives of choosing to “stand with the ultra-wealthy and not stand with young people.”

Coming from Trudeau, who has a habit of  vacationing with billionaires, that message may be less than convincing as a leader in the class struggle. And the way the budget dealt with the disability benefit will further undermine Liberal claims to be on the side of the down-trodden. 

Disability disappointment

Touted in the past as a measure to lift persons with disabilities out of poverty, the disability benefit unveiled in the budget fell well short of that. Although the Liberals aptly described the new benefit as one of the most significant line item expenditures in the budget, that’s not saying much. Costed at $6.1 billion over five years and set to a maximum of  $200 a month per individual, the benefit won’t start for about 500,000 working-age (15-64) Canadians with disabilities until July 2025. Both the amount and the eligibility criteria were widely criticized. 

The advocacy group Disability Without Poverty called the benefit “too little for too few.” Inclusion Canada said over 1.5 million Canadians with disabilities face deep poverty and “this budget leaves most of those individuals behind.” Michael Prince, University of Victoria social policy expert, reacted to the proposal’s shortcomings by resigning from the panel set up to advise the government on implementation of the benefit.

The impetus for the disability benefit is a remnant of the COVID-19 lockdown -coming from a recognition that persons with disabilities suffered disproportionately during the pandemic. It was one of many initiatives on the “Build Back Better” agenda outlined in the 2020 speech from the throne. But like most of the promises made at the time (better primary health care, national universal pharmacare, elimination of chronic homelessness) it became bogged down and/or watered down.

Legislation introduced in 2021 died on the order paper when Trudeau called an election. Re-introduced in 2022 as Canada Disability Benefit Act, Bill C-22 was finalized  in July 2023. Although the sponsoring minister, Carla Qualtrough, had compared the initiative with the Guaranteed Income Supplement that lifted millions of seniors out of poverty, the legislation was criticized for narrow eligibility criteria and the absence of any definition of adequacy. The benefit amount, and the issue of provincial clawback of benefits, was to be left to cabinet and established after 18 months of consultation with provinces and stakeholders. 

In respect to timing, the start date of July 2025 is consistent with the legislation. What’s miserably inconsistent is the amount of the benefit and its coverage. Advocates have estimated that it would cost at least $10 billion a year to eliminate poverty among Canadians with disabilities. The budget allocates slightly over $1 billion a year over six years, with benefits limited to about 500,000 recipients. 

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In response to the understandable anger and disappointment, Trudeau was chastened, sort of. “We recognize there is more to do,” he said in response to a question in the House of Commons the day after the budget came down. “We will be working with provinces and territories to make sure, first of all, that this disability money is not clawed back and, secondly, that we can do even more in partnership with provinces and territories for Canadians with disabilities.”

There was a similar message from Irek Kusmierczyk, parliamentary secretary to the minster responsible, the unavailable Kamal Khera. On CBC radio’s The House, Kusmierczky said the proposal in the budget was a first step and “not the last word in the chapter.” 

It will likely not be the last word, but whether any subsequent words will be particularly encouraging to persons with disabilities is doubtful. Housing for the under-40s, dental care and pharmacare have all jumped ahead in the queue for new federal spending just as pressure increases to reduce the federal deficit. The Liberals likely have one more budget before going to the polls next year, but a betting person would not put a lot of money on a significant increase in the disability benefit in that budget. 

Moreover, further conversation will need to involve provincial governments, many of whom (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec) are going to ridiculous lengths to frustrate efforts by the Trudeau Liberals to improve social programs in areas of provincial jurisdiction.Disability benefits fall firmly in that category and provincial governments have shown no evidence of a desire to apply national standards to such benefits.

Eligibility rules and benefit levels vary widely from province to province.According to Maytree, in 2022 income assistance for persons with disabilities rates ranged from a high of $21,319 for one category of recipients in Alberta to a low of less than $11,000 for a single person in New Brunswick. Nova Scotia was almost as low as New Brunswick before a $300-per-month top-up was added in the latest provincial budget – an increase that still left rates 40 percent below the poverty line.

Getting provinces to take part in a national effort to improve the lives and incomes of persons with disabilities will take more than a token $1billion-plus per year contribution from Ottawa. But if nothing else the disappointing outcome of the Trudeau government’s four-year exercise has brought some much-needed attention to the poverty that faces so many Canadians with disabilities. It is to be hoped that attention will continue after the furore over diminished capital gains dies down.