AISH recipients being 'overlooked', says Strathcona County mom

An Alberta mother says the province is contradicting its own philosophy by forcing disabled people like her daughter to live well below the poverty line.

'People with disabilities don’t have a loud voice ... so they tend to be overlooked'

Mackenzie Meyer depends on AISH for the bulk of her income, but also works two part-time jobs. Here is she with an Employee of the Month Award for her work at Goodwill. (Carla Howatt)

An Alberta mother says the province is contradicting its own philosophy by forcing disabled people like her daughter to live well below the poverty line.

Carla Howatt, a Strathcona County councillor, says people reliant on the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped program should earn the same as minimum wage workers.

While minimum wage in Alberta will be increased to $15 an hour by 2018, AISH benefits will remain unchanged.

As the province shortens the income gap for everyone else, disabled people are being left behind, said Howatt.

"The NDP has established that $15 an hour is the base wage for families in Alberta to live with dignity and be able to raise their families.
Carla Howatt worries that the minimum wage hike will affect her daughter's job prospects. (Carla Howatt)
 "Unfortunately, people with disabilities don't have a loud voice, and they don't have a loud, angry voice so they tend to be overlooked."

AISH provides a maximum of $1,588 per month to those with permanent disabilities, which affect their ability to earn a living.  A minimum wage worker, working 40 hours a week, will earn $2,400 per month under the hike.

Howatt says her daughter, Mackenzie Meyer, who has Down syndrome, receives full AISH support.

At 23-years old, Meyer has lived on her own for five years and works four shifts a week, split between Goodwill and the County Clothesline in Sherwood Park.

But many dependants have no way to supplement their income, Howatt said.

"She works 16 hours a week and it definitely helps her be able to afford her life." Howatt said.

"But there are many many people on AISH who can't work at all."

No planned increase, province says

The province confirms there are no plans to increase AISH benefits.

"Our government believes that all Albertans should be able to live in a stable home and be able to put food on the table," said Minister of Human Services Irfan Sabir in a statement to CBC News.

"Despite challenging economic times, Budget 2016 maintains AISH benefit levels with a funding increase of $28.3 million to address caseload pressures and cost-per-case growth.

"Given the challenging economic circumstances the province currently faces, we are not in a position to increase AISH rates at this time."

"We will continue to protect supports for AISH clients, including personal and health benefits, to ensure AISH clients receive a full array of supports to assist with daily life."

AISH was last hiked in 2012, from $1,188 to the current $1,588 a month, while the eligibility requirements were also relaxed that year.

But in the years since, Howatt says, it's become harder for dependants to make ends meet.

'You can't use benefits to pay your rent' 

She says using the downturn as an excuse to keep benefits status quo is unfair, given the government's recent defence of the minimum wage increase.

"They have said to the businesses, 'Yes the economy is bad, but this is what needs to happen to ensure all vulnerable Albertans live well and do not to have to live in poverty.'

"But whenever I approach [the province], to ask if they're going to pay AISH recipients that, their response has been, 'the economy is bad there is not enough money.' "

"And they get benefits, but you can't use benefits to pay your rent or put food on the table."  

Furthermore, Howatt is concerned that raising Alberta's minimum wage to $15 per hour may limit the amount of jobs available to disabled individuals like her daughter.

"I've heard from business owners. They say they, 'I want to hire people with disabilities, but they can't do everything that someone else can do.'

'So when push comes to shove and they have to pay $15 an hour, who are they going to pay?"