MLA’s AISH experiment likely won’t change government’s mind, advocates say

St. Albert NDP MLA Marie Renaud has vowed to live on $1,685 in October.

NDP MLA Marie Renaud is spending October living on $1,685, the amount a single person on AISH receives each month. CBC

Michelle Bellefontaine, CBC News Calgary October 07, 2020

Advocates working to end poverty say an MLA’s plan to live on what she would earn if she was receiving Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) will raise public awareness, but likely won’t change the government’s mind.

St. Albert MLA Marie Renaud, the NDP Opposition critic for Community and Social Services, is spending October living on $1,685, the amount she would receive if she qualified for AISH.

Susan Morrissey, executive director of the Edmonton Social Planning Council, thinks Renaud’s project will help increase public awareness and empathy for people on AISH, but that’s all.

“I would doubt it will change the mind of anyone in government necessarily at this point in time,” Morrissey said.

“But I think the public needs to become more aware of the realities. Needs to understand some of the myths associated with being on AISH. Needs to understand that it’s not an easy ride. And needs to understand that what they receive doesn’t cover their true costs.”

People with a permanent disability that prevents them from acquiring and keeping a full-time job can apply for AISH.

The program is under review by the United Conservative government. Last fall, the province ended the indexing of benefits to the cost of living, a change introduced by the previous NDP government. Last month, the premier mused about changing the eligibility requirements to reduce growing case numbers.

The statements have alarmed people who receive benefits, Renaud said.

“Those decision makers really have no idea the impact of their words, like the panic that is setting in, in this community,” she said.

Accountability group

Renaud decided to generate public awareness after people on AISH told her she should try living on what they receive each month.

She asked some AISH recipients she speaks with frequently if they thought it was a good idea.

Her contacts ran a poll on Facebook and talked to their friends. The consensus was that the exercise would be a good way to create some empathy among the public.

“My big fear was that I didn’t want this to be about me or I didn’t want this to be perceived as a stunt,” she said.

As an MLA who earns a base salary of $120,931 and lives in a condo, Renaud had to set some rules for herself in order to make the AISH challenge as realistic as possible.

Accommodation costs were subtracted from her $1,685 budget.

Renaud cancelled cable and parked her car in favour of walking or taking the bus.

Her advisory group of AISH recipients, who she plans to meet with each week, told her she needed to start her month with an empty freezer and no stockpiles of personal care items.

Renaud was left with $30 a week for food, leaving her with few means to buy fresh produce.

“When you have that limited amount of money, that’s just not high on the list,” she said. “When you have to buy staples, you need to buy milk or bread or pasta or even laundry detergent.”

Erick Ambtman, executive director of End Poverty Edmonton, said Renaud’s experience won’t match what people on AISH face because she doesn’t have a disability. But her experiment will help address misconceptions about people who receive benefits, he said.

Ambtman said people who live in cities like Edmonton or Fort McMurray have little left over after they pay rent. That creates tough choices, like sacrificing personal safety to live in a cheaper part of town or eating ramen noodles every night because that’s all you can afford, he added.

“Those are things I think [Renaud] can bring to light is that these are not people who are just sort of living the high life off of taxpayers’ money,” he said.

“These are people are struggling to get by every week. Every day of every week there’s challenges that exist because their incomes are just so low.

$12 an hour

Both Ambtman and Morrissey say supports for people with AISH are too low. Ambtman said the federal government set $500 a week, or $2000 a month, as the bare minimum of support for people who lost their jobs during the pandemic.

Morrissey said AISH support works out to $12 an hour for a 35-hour work week in a province that pays a $15 minimum wage. Last year, the living wage for a family of four in Edmonton was $16.51 an hour.

“I don’t know who can live off of $12 an hour,” she said, noting the struggle is even greater for people with disabilities.

Ambtman said government needs to talk to people who receive benefits to learn what can actually help without making incorrect assumptions.

“We sort of have developed this philosophy of helping people to survive. If I can help you to survive, then our job is done.” he said. “We also create a lot of our systems to punish the one or two per cent that we think are cheating.”

CBC News requested an interview with Community and Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney, but was told via a spokesperson she was tied up in meetings on Tuesday and had no comment.

Source CBC News Calgary


Also see
Province reviewing growing case numbers for AISH and PDD programs CBC
What it’s like living on AISH while the government spars over its future CBC

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