THERE’S MORE TO DO TO IMPROVE AISH, ISN’T THERE?

I was at the gathering where Premier Notley and Minister Sabir announced legislation that would improve benefits to recipients of AISH. I support these improvements (read more). My math indicates a 6% increase to the AISH benefit. Some critics say it should have been higher, given the length of time since the last increase. Some say the government could have brought in these changes earlier.

Of course there are others who would choose to reduce AISH benefits while increasing the coffers of the wealthy through tax breaks.

Everybody’s got their opinion on how things should be if they were in charge. If only Premier Notley and her colleagues could accommodate all of us!

I see the changes as a positive development, an additional program reform that will help vulnerable Albertans. I wish the bump had been bigger, but the government has a budget to contend with. The indexing to the cost of living is an appropriate way to ensure that adjustments are made each year. That’s a big change for the better.

Most of us who work in the community change sector, in particular those who work to end poverty, homelessness, and the poor treatment of the marginalized are expressing support for the government’s actions. Some are celebrating it.  Sure, I will clink a glass or two to celebrate the changes, but let’s make sure we see this change as a strong beginning to a path forward toward further reform. We are not done yet, right?

I saw one suggestion via Twitter that folks on AISH should receive the equivalent to the minimum wage that the government requires employers to provide. At 35 hours a week that would amount to $27,300 per year. The increased AISH benefit translates to an annual income of $20,220. There is merit in this idea. If  one believes that an Albertan worker should be entitled to a minimum wage of $15 per hour, why are people on AISH deserving of less? On the other hand, $20,220 is above the poverty line (as of 2015) of $18,213.

The problem with poverty lines is that they are about subsistence in the present. They do not factor in the future of recipients of AISH as they grow older. They do not allow for emergencies in the many forms they manifest in people’s lives. They do not allow saving any money or having the means to do much more than survive.

Survival is not living. Survival is surviving.

AISH should promote more than survival.

What concerns me is that AISH is not really a disability pension that the recipient can count on. Let me provide an example. It’s a real one, not made up. Names have been changed.

John and Mary are married. Mary has a teenage son from a previous marriage and together they have a three year old. Mary is on AISH. Well, actually she is and she isn’t. John has been a low income earner until recently. Each month Mary’s benefit was adjusted (i.e. clawed back) based on John’s monthly income, which varied month to month.

Recently John got a better job that pays reasonably well. His income is still far below the Alberta average, but he is making enough to trigger AISH reducing Mary’s AISH benefit to zero. If one does the math for this family, it is in effect no farther ahead than then when John earned lower wages. I am not suggesting AISH should never be adjusted downward based on family income, but I do wonder if it is appropriate to wipe  it out.

Wiping out the benefit says to Mary, you no longer deserve your own income. You no longer have status with AISH decision-makers and should be happy now being totally dependent on your spouse. And for John who is trying to make a better life for his family, the message is your wife is now your burden. Your extra wages should not benefit your family; they should reduce the cost of Mary on the government.

I have a problem with that.

Doesn’t the claw back marginalize Mary? And John? And their children?

If Mary earned the minimum wage, an employer would not reduce it because John is making more money than he once was.

To be honest, I am not sure how this should work, but how it works now seems wrong to me. AISH recipients are people, not just recipients. Having their income reduced to zero impacts the dignity of people like Mary who want to feel like they are able to contribute to their family’s economic life and future.

Perhaps there are further reforms to consider. Perhaps there is a “middle way” to adjust AISH benefits downward as family income increases. Perhaps there should be a core benefit that never can be eliminated or that should only be eliminated if the family’s income is on par with the average wage of Albertans. Or something like that.

What do you think?

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