Supports Cut for Low-Income B.C. Residents 

Minor savings to province signal a devaluation of vulnerable people 
By Michael J. Prince, Times ColonistMarch 9, 2010  

On April 1, a number of dental, preventive health and medical services for people struggling to live on disability assistance and income assistance will
be cut back.

This is not a fool’s joke; it is Liberal government social policy.

The way these cuts were announced is disturbing from a democratic perspective.

No mention was made in the Ministry of Housing and Social Development’s service plan for 2010 to 2012 released with the budget. Cutting benefits to low-income citizens, including children and persons with disabilities, did not figure in the ministry’s objectives, strategies or performance measures.

The government’s overall strategic plan contains no reference to program retrenchments in regard to the poor. It was after only the budget was presented
that these cutbacks appeared in an information bulletin by the ministry.

The nature of these cuts, which total about $25 million over the next two years, is outlined below.

Funeral supplement: Sponsors of immigrants who have the means to pay will be added to the list of people responsible for covering the funeral expenses for low-income persons. Savings, $1.5 million.

Medical equipment and supplies: No longer coverage for pre-made foot orthotics, electrotherapy devices, diagnostic testing devices, such as for diabetes, and contraceptive devices. Savings, $9.3 million.

Life-threatening health need supplements: Income-testing for residents who do not receive income or disability assistance. Certain items no longer covered

  • optical, dental and extended therapies including chiropractic and physiotherapy. Savings, more than $2 million when combined with savings from medical services cuts below
  • Medical services: Income-testing of eligibility and time limits on duration of access to medical health supplements.
  • Minimum shelter allowance: The $75 monthly benefit eliminated for persons with disabilities and income assistance clients aged 60 to 64 (effective June 1). Savings, $1.9 million.
  • Bottled water supplement: The $20 monthly supplement for persons with disabilities and income assistance clients eliminated (effective July 1), Savings, $1.7 million
  • Monthly nutritional supplements: Tighter eligibility requirements for persons with disabilities clients (who may have muscle loss, an immune suppression or neurological deterioration) to qualify for a monthly nutritional supplement. Savings, $5.2 million
  • Dental services: Examinations, polishing and fluoride treatments permitted just once a year instead of twice a year. X-ray coverage limited to every two years instead of once a year. Savings, $3.1 million

The cuts are indicative of the Campbell government’s attitude toward the poor and of the future of the social safety net in our post-Olympics era.

Why is the Liberal government cutting essential services to those living on the edge in our province? How are these cuts moving B.C. forward toward the
great goal of building the best system of support in Canada for persons with disabilities, those with special needs and children at risk?

The ministry justifies these changes as necessary to ensure the province can manage an increased caseload, make certain income assistance programs are sustainable and provide benefits to as many people as possible.

These are dubious and unsavory claims.

Caseloads have grown as a result of the recession, as they are intended to do. They will gradually ease as the economic recovery continues.

These program changes, described by the ministry as designed to “protect service for low-income clients” — a phrase out of George Orwell’s newspeak —
in fact involve tightening access to various benefits and reducing the number of items covered.

The estimated savings for the coming year represent about less than three days of income assistance funding — hardly critical for the sustainability of
the system.

If a notion of equity is at play here, it is an impoverished sense of fairness toward people in low-income circumstances and on income assistance.

Missing is the fuller version of equity long endorsed by Canadians, with the progressive allocation of benefits and burdens between people with low incomes and those with higher incomes.

Most troubling, these targeted cuts and minor savings to the provincial treasury, signal a further devaluation of this already vulnerable population of
British Columbians.

These cutbacks set an administrative tone that will be reflected in delivery systems and a political context for additional cuts to the already meagre benefits and supports to persons with disabilities and children and families living in poverty.

The time is overdue for our provincial government to undertake widespread legislative hearings and consultations on the feasibility, design and implementation of a comprehensive anti-poverty reduction strategy.

Otherwise, we are fooling no one that we are building the best system of supports in the country for all those disadvantaged and vulnerable.

Michael J. Prince is the Lansdowne professor of social policy at the University of Victoria.

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