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OPINION: Perception still the biggest battle for Alberta AISH recipients

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Recent updates to benefits under the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) are a great step forward, but perception around recipients need to change before greater strides will be made.

Bill 26, An Act to Combat Poverty and Fight for Albertans with Disabilities, was announced Nov. 8, and seeks to address some long-standing financial issues for persons on AISH.

AISH payments would increase under Bill 26 from a maximum of $1,588 per month, to $1,685 per month and future increases would be tied to the Consumer Price Index. People on AISH who can work to some extent, can earn up to $800 per month before payments are clawed back. These changes still need to be passed by government.

Financially, every little bit helps. But, people on AISH tend to keep very quiet because AISH recipients can be targets for ridicule. They’re seen as suckling at the government teat with no initiative to get off it.

This situation was made famous by the late Ralph Klein, who, in 2004, commented that the AISH recipients he had met at a recent sod turning didn’t seem handicapped. Support for Klein’s attitude poured in despite the fact that it led to reform of the AISH program and an increase in payments. This attitude is unfortunately still prevailing, and granted, while some reform has taken place, the AISH program itself is designed to discourage the severely handicapped from being on it.

The government’s benefit increase and changes are a good start but clearly extensive reform needs to take place to bring AISH into compliance with current standards for the treatment of the disabled.

AISH recipients have barriers to a more normal life put upon them by the AISH program. For example, if an AISH recipient wants to marry they can lose some or all of their benefits depending on the income of the partner. Also if an AISH recipient has a common-law partner and they decide to move in together to save money, the government can take away AISH benefits. This policy serves to discourage AISH recipients from entering into relationships.

I put this issue to the Ministry of Community and Social Services. They responded with this:

“The AISH Act outlines treatment of income for individuals who are in a relationship and living together.  This requirement has been in place for over a decade. Bill 26 will ensure greater predictability and stability of benefit levels and address a longstanding unfairness in the AISH program.

“We are open to having further conversations with the community about all issues they want to discuss, including this policy. Just as we have on all issues, we are committing to being open and collaborative, and listening to Albertans who rely on these supports.”

What this proposed increase brings to light is that more funding is required to bring AISH up to a standard that provides the basic necessities of life in the modern world. The previous amount of $1,588 adjusted for inflation is equivalent to AISH payments in 1993 dollars.

What AISH recipients want is for AISH payments to be brought up to the level of minimum wage. What public reaction to this would be isn’t certain, but if it’s anything like the fight to get acceptance of $15 per hour for everyone working on minimum wage, it might not be pleasant – driven by the perception I mentioned before.

In the meantime AISH recipients will continue to live below the poverty line for years to come. The question is, does the NDP government have the political will to do right by the severely handicapped.

A graduate of the University of Calgary, George Young served as a Naval Communicator before becoming a journalist. George is on AISH and has first-hand knowledge of the system.