Rising costs are forcing British Columbians living on disability assistance to make tough choices

When Shauna Milne goes grocery shopping these days, she says she has to find ways to stretch her limited income to feed herself and her two teenage sons.

Due to rising costs, fresh produce is not an option, says the single mother who lives in Surrey, B.C., instead relying on frozen and processed foods.

“If I skip a meal or two, that’s what I have to do,” said Milne, who describes herself as an “insulin-dependent diabetic with neuropathy,” which causes her to lose feeling in her feet.

She adds that she has had seven surgeries on her left leg, cannot stand for long periods of time and is beginning to lose control of her hands.

As the cost of living continues to soar across the province and across the country, people living on income assistance and disability assistance are being forced to make tough decisions, like choosing between groceries and medications.

Milne and other people with disabilities have long called for increased disability and income assistance rates, which they say leave recipients living well below the poverty line.

According to Statistics Canadapeople with disabilities have a significantly higher rate of poverty and unemployment than the general population.

Income disparity

Over the past year, the cost of groceries in the province has increased by 9.1%, according to British Columbia statistics. Rental costs increased by 6.4% and gasoline prices by 32.8%.

Milne, who is on income assistance – pending approval of her disability assistance application – says she spends all of her income on rent for a two-bedroom basement apartment.

In British Columbia, a person on income assistance receives $935 per month, while a person on disability assistance receives $1,358 per month.

She says she also uses the Canada Child Benefit – a tax-free monthly payment from the federal government to help families with the cost of raising children – to cover the rest of her rent, bills, medicine and food.

Shauna Milne says she is awaiting approval for her application for disability assistance. (CBC News/Murray Titus)

Milne says she experiences depression, anxiety and a sense of failure. For the past five years, she says, she has been unable to work due to her disability.

“I hate my own four walls. I wish I was there to work and be part of society. Really,” she said.

Heather McCain, founder of the non-profit organization Creating Accessible Neighborhoods, says disability support rates in British Columbia are far below what is required.

“Every increase, whether in the cost of living, food or gasoline, has an impact on people with disabilities who are already struggling to survive,” they said.

Disability assistance rates were frozen for a decade under the BC Liberal government, and while there have been slight increases since the BC NDP came to power, McCain says rates still haven’t kept up with the cost of living.

“I think it’s very myopic for the government not to raise tariffs because it’s precautionary,” they said.

“It helps people to be more involved in their communities, to have jobs, to volunteer. By not raising rates, they are going to create higher health care costs.”

Heather McCain says income assistance rates for people with disabilities need to be increased significantly to catch up with the cost of living. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Jewelles Smith, a disability activist who recently completed her doctorate in gender and critical disability studies, says the income disparity was particularly apparent when the federal government set the rates for the Canada Intervention Benefit. (CERB) at $2,000, nearly $700 more than Disability Income Assistance.

“It tells me the government doesn’t think about the cost of living with a disability at all,” Smith said.

“And that’s perfectly fine for people who are forced to go to government for their basic needs to live in abject poverty.”

Government urged to do more

During the pandemic, the government added a monthly subsidy of $300 to the income and disability assistance rates.

The subsidy was later reduced to a permanent increase of $175 a month for both rates, but Dan Davies, BC’s Liberal poverty critic, says that’s not enough.

“We are always pushing the government to return the $300, especially now,” he said.

Nicholas Simons, Minister for Social Development and Poverty Reduction, said in a statement that income and disability rates had tripled in four years.

“While we have made great strides over the past few years, there is still work to be done and we will continue to look for ways to reduce costs for people,” he said.

But advocates like McCain and Smith say phased increases make little difference when the income gap is already so wide, and both call for rates to be raised to at least CERB levels.

Milne extended a personal invitation to the government.

“Come to Surrey, Langley, Abbotsford and see what these rents do to people,” she said. “And really do something.”