My name is David Steeves. I have a son living with a disability and have been involved in policy development and program implementation in the provincial disability sector for about 15 years, mainly in Alberta.
When I started this work, it was centered on adult programs and the delivery system for persons living with developmental disabilities. The focus later changed to income assistance and benefits for people living with other disabilities. I spent a lot of time asking questions about the long-term financial security of this extremely vulnerable sector of our society, especially as the group would probably never be able to work in the way much of the world defines work. Over the years I was able to see some big positive changes in focus and attitude within Alberta’s provincial disability program, AISH, which originally fell under the broad classification of social assistance—better known as “welfare”. I feel most proud of helping move AISH out from under the umbrella of welfare and into a category that provides many more opportunities for people with disabilities. Namely by significantly increasing income supports to levels that allow a person to seriously plan for a long-term hopeful future. I feel we need more of this kind of social leadership across the country.
Fast forward to 2012. Looking at the diversity of what all levels of governments have been doing in terms of disability policy this year, I asked myself two questions: Where they seem to be going, and is there any apparent synergy/coordination among the provinces and territories and with the federal government?
I personally found a few bright spots, but little to get excited about. I see that a few of the provinces/territories seem to be trying to move those with disabilities away from poverty with significant increases now and in the near future in income supports. Others have taken steps to removing some penalties relating to employment income clawbacks for those trying to work. Some are looking at social-housing issues and still others at culturally sensitive and appropriate programming. All good incremental steps, especially when combined with income increases and employment penalties reductions, but it is difficult to see any comprehensive, joint, long-term policy direction.
All governments probably feel they are doing the best they can, given limited resources and all the other demands placed on them. I however feel there is lost opportunity-cost associated with what I see as most provinces and territories dithering and simply not addressing the tough questions and issues. How can there be hope for tomorrow for many adults relegated to a life of poverty?
The goal of a good life in a welcoming community gathers strength when the hopelessness of poverty forever is addressed with long-term directional policy that engages individuals, support networks, the business of banking, and all levels of the government. The RDSP is the first tool to come along that actually starts to address that hopelessness felt by so many in our society. But time marches on and in the area of long-term financial planning—delaying actions are not often kind. The federal government made some very significant progress with the RDSP this year, which despite some issues is a great financial tool overall. It appears they recognized the limited nature of income growth and asset accumulation within the disability community and wanted to set something up to help. But even with the generous benefits that come with the RDSP, it remains one strategy that many cannot access because of factors such as age, type of disability or natural-support breakdown.
When we look at long-term disability benefits and asset building, the strategies that engage individuals and their networks need to be multiple. Most current disability benefits have become less significant as many provinces and territories don’t, can’t or simply won’t fund to an acceptable level. The natural-support networks of families and friends try their best to fill that gap, but the fixed and shrinking reality of retirement income coupled with the erosion of the various family tax credits leads to less capacity within these networks.
If we are to try to fill the ditch in financial supports for our loved ones living with disabilities, we need more in our toolbox then just the RDSP and a few rusting-away old tax credits. All tax and social policy opportunities must be looked at and where possible adapted or modified to ensure access and foster participation. Our society is based upon work, and tax policies together with social policies are often used to achieve desired outcomes. There needs to be a comprehensive review of these tax and social policies with a view to enabling and encouraging individuals living with disabilities and their support networks to realistically plan for today, tomorrow and the long-term future.
I’ll leave you with a few short snappers, to give some examples of what I mean.
- Why can’t family members or friends who are in their income-earning years make tax-deductible contributions (both individual and employer portions) to CPP for unemployed Disability Tax Credit eligible individuals? As long as the actuarial integrity of the CPP is not compromised, where is the harm?
- Why can’t individuals supporting someone living with a disability make greater tax-deductible pension or RRSP contributions with an understanding that the pension or RRSP will have a third payout option that will include the individual living with the disability? Would such a strategy not help all levels of government by perhaps reducing the need for unique long-term income support programs?
- Why can’t the current pension income-splitting provisions provide a third option so that a family who supports a member living with a disability can transfer that splitting provision to the individual with the disability when one of the pensioners dies? By recognizing that there have been three or perhaps more people supported by the benefit of the pension income-splitting, and further that there are still two or more living persons continuing to need the splitting benefit, would not such a change recognize and honour the contributions made by the individuals natural family supports?