Opinion: Classism in the Canada Disability Benefit – and in Kingston

Photo by Dan Fleury.

Editor’s note: The following is a submitted op-ed piece from Frances Koziar, responding to classism in the recently funded Canadian Disability Benefit and how that relates to classism on the ground in Kingston. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Kingstonist.

In the new 2024 federal budget, the Liberal government finally put numbers to the long-awaited Canada Disability Benefit (CBD). This benefit was promised to lift disabled people out of poverty, something desperately needed in Kingston as everywhere else.

Instead, the budget will only give $200/month more, and only to those who qualify for the Disability Tax Credit. By the federal government’s own poverty line calculations, which placed it at about $18K/year in 2018 and factoring in inflation, the poverty line is now about $25K/year for an individual in Canada.

Although disability benefits vary province to province, in every province, it is far below the poverty line, and in none of them would someone living entirely on disability be lifted out of poverty by an extra $200/month. In Ontario, the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) payment is $15,700/year ($1,308/month), or $16,900 if you manage to qualify for the “work related expenses” bonus.

An extra $200/month here in Kingston would still only lift you up to $18K/year — the poverty line as of six years ago. And the poverty line is only the point at which you can afford necessities that are required for your health, like food and medication; a good quality of life is more expensive.

But it’s worse than that. As someone who lives permanently on ODSP because of a severe disability, I am used to being treated like people don’t care if I live or die. Our supports don’t even increase with inflation (though 2023, thankfully, was the one exception to that), and the last time the provincial government publicly announced a raise to ODSP seven years ago, it was the outgoing Liberals saying they were going to increase it by three per cent (one year’s inflation). Despite the fact that ODSP has effectively been going down for decades, that idea was still so controversial that the incoming Conservatives slashed the increase to only half of one year’s inflation. The bar is lying on the ground, and that $200/month would still be amazing for us.

Except I, and most others in poverty, won’t get it. That’s because the new disability benefit will only be paid to those who qualify for the Disability Tax Credit. Most of us living below the poverty line do not qualify for that tax credit because it’s generally based on a person’s ability to live alone and do basic life tasks, rather than their ability to work.

I was approved by the provincial and federal governments for another benefit, called the Severe Permanent Disability Benefit, which excused my student loans on the grounds that I am too disabled to ever pay them off anyway. To do that, I had to convince the government that I would never be able to work at all. I did, and I am still not eligible for the Disability Tax Credit — a tax credit, I might add, that was always more of a benefit to the middle-class caregivers of disabled people since it requires taxable income, and was never really for us anyway.

Those living on disability below the poverty line are living a nightmare, and will continue to do so until everyone else rises up and complains about injustices like what just happened with the federal budget, what has been happening with the provincial ones for decades, and even what our municipal government has been doing and not doing in terms of how poor people are treated in our city.

I didn’t believe the Canadian Disability Benefit would be approved in the first place, because frankly, most people care more about chasing us out of their neighbourhoods than they do about advocating for increasing social supports — something I have witnessed very clearly in Kingston. Illegal discrimination by landlords against people on disability is rampant in Kingston, sometimes explicitly stated in housing ads, but I have never seen the city take action against that or to try to raise awareness with landlords. When the city’s tiny home community was going to be relocated to my neighbourhood recently, someone went around delivering flyers to mailboxes saying “those people” should not be living in residential neighbourhoods with the rest of us. Classism is alive and well in Kingston, coming from all levels of government and all levels of people.

Although I really should know better by now, when the CDB was approved, I made the mistake of allowing myself to hope. I believed maybe this really was it: maybe I really would see the day when the government would lift all of us out of poverty, when we are here through no fault of our own.

Being severely disabled would still be completely awful for me even if the government paid us $50K/year. But right now, if you are too disabled to work, you deal with that disability, and you deal with ableism, and you deal with poverty because of institutionalized ableism, and you deal with classism, turning your one tragedy into four. And, of course, it goes without saying that you will become a social pariah whom no one wants to talk to, much less allow into their neighbourhoods. We are, after all, known for being lazy, crazy, stupid, dirty, irresponsible liars who bring trouble wherever we go.

The federal government has decided not to help us. In addition to the cruelty of breaking their promise, these events reflect an embarrassing level of ignorance on the part of those in charge for who we really are down here. It’s a level of ignorance that is very common in ordinary people too. The average middle-class person doesn’t even know that the majority of soup kitchen regulars in Kingston are on ODSP. The first step in changing oppression is acknowledging that you don’t understand it. We can start there, and then move toward love.

In a world that cared about us, the federal government would apologize for this mistake. The provincial government would increase ODSP to far above the $25k/year current poverty line and set it to increase annually with inflation. The disability tax credit would get expanded to all those who can’t work or are severely disabled. Kingston City Council would publicly apologize for trying to evict the city’s most vulnerable whom they are sworn to serve, and every one of them who supported the Belle Island Park lawsuit would take real accountability, and have the humility to reach out to us directly and respectfully and acknowledge that they don’t know what to do right now. Landlords in Kingston would specifically try to rent to people on ODSP and Ontario Works (OW, sometimes referred to as “welfare”) because they don’t want us to be homeless, rather than actively making us homeless by bad faith evictions and refusing to rent to us the moment they hear of our source of income. And the people of Kingston would volunteer with us, ask hard questions, challenge their leaders when they err, and do some research of their own, so that we could remember that we are all the same.

Anyone can become too disabled to work, so any one of you who is not one of us yet could someday join us. Your education will not save you, nor your resume. My master’s degree might make me better at strategizing, and I might be able to budget better than most, but even at my best, I have been homeless in Kingston. That is not my fault. It is the city’s, the people’s, the province’s, and Canada’s. We are all in this together, and we have all failed each other, and that is heartbreaking.

I have a dream, even down here in the gutter with the rest of the garbage. I dream of a day when my people are treated with respect, and no one turns away in disgust when they see us. I dream of not being afraid of homelessness or evictions. I dream of knowing what safety means. I dream of a city and a country where my people do not have to be sentenced for life to all the horrifying nightmares of poverty for any reason, much less because of a disability.

But while I dream of these things, I do not spend my time hoping for them, because hope is for the privileged, and hope hurts too much.

If you have financial privilege, if you make more than those of us on ODSP or OW, please reach out to our MP and MPP. Please complain. Please don’t let this slide. Please support Resolve Counselling, and Martha’s Table, and the Partners in Mission Food Bank, where strangely radical people who seem to think we matter abide. Please remember that we make half of what minimum wage workers make, and OW is way worse even than ODSP, and we should be the priority in anti-poverty initiatives.

Poverty is inherently traumatic, and that reality is around us every day in Kingston as everywhere else. I hope you will fight for us before the day comes when you join us. Because after that day, no one will listen to you, even though they should. Even though we all matter, because we have always been one.

Frances Koziar is a young (disabled) retiree who manages to write a couple hours a week. Her op-eds on poverty have appeared in ‘CBC Opinion,’ ‘Best Canadian Essays 2021,’ and previously in ‘The Kingstonist.’ She is a social justice activist living in Kingston.
Author website: https://franceskoziar.wixsite.com/author

Share your views! Submit a Letter to the Editor or an Op/Ed article to Kingstonist’s Editor-in-Chief Tori Stafford at [email protected].

3 thoughts on “Opinion: Classism in the Canada Disability Benefit – and in Kingston

  • I am very sad to hear this stipulation with the federal disability benefits (altho not surprised). My first question was how will this impact provincial disability benefits and supports. Would people lose benefits offered to them because they have a higher income. I am sorry to hear they have dropped the ball again. And I am also sorry for the discrimination suffered from the federal government and the people in our community. I do not look as those in ODSP as you have described above and sadly I cannot argue that you are wrong. I have witnessed the deplorable living conditions available to your income level.

  • Beautifully written! Thank you!
    But heartbreaking and true
    Anyone could become homeless just with a little bad luck and particularlu with a physical disability-and I’m sure some suffer from mental illness and substance abuse because of being homeless (to escape) instead of becoming homeless because of the mental illness and/or drug addiction (i.e., ‘Those People’)
    Either way, it’s time for Kingstonians to do their part and help whether it’s through contributing money, time, or simply being open-minded and supportive. Residents of Kingston and area who agree, need to communicate their support to the government at all levels. A human rights lawyer could definitely help too but it’s too much for one person-would take an organized group with a voice!
    Having food, housing and respect is a human right and should be available to everyone

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