AISH caseloads have ballooned over the past decade. What’s driving that?

Albertans receiving Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped up 57%

The steady rise in people receiving benefits through the province’s Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) program hit 75,554 in October. CBC

Elise von Scheel, CBC News Calgary January 9, 2024

A growing number of Albertans have been relying on income support programs over the last 10 years.

That steady rise in people receiving benefits through the province’s Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) program hit 75,554 in October.

That represents a 57 per cent increase in a decade — up from about 48,000 people in 2013 — influenced by job booms and busts, the rising cost of living and national health factors.

By comparison, Alberta’s population grew by 24 per cent over the same time period.

AISH payments are available to people with permanent medical conditions that limit their ability to work. It typically includes a monthly living allowance and health benefits.

But the program has been criticized for providing too little as living costs grow, and some advocates say the criteria to qualify is too narrow.

When the United Conservative government was elected, it de-indexed benefit payments to no longer rise in tandem with inflation. The government eventually reversed that decision and benefits were once again tied to that rise.

Back in 2020, the province had contracted a study to review the reasons for the increase in the number of people receiving benefits from disability programs.

The recent caseload growth means there were 12.5 people per thousand receiving AISH in 2013, and in 2023 that had grown to about 16 people.

Confluence of factors driving the increase

There are several factors that experts say are combining to drive that increase.

Repercussions from COVID-19 were particularly disadvantageous to people with disabilities. The Canadian Survey on Disability for 2022 found two in five struggled to meet their financial needs because of the pandemic.

Experts also say there’s a specific circumstance this province struggles with when it comes to social safety nets.

“I think Alberta is unique,” said Lee Stevens, a police and research specialist at Vibrant Communities Calgary, referring to the boom-and-bust economic cycles.

“When the unemployment rate is high, you’re going to see income support caseloads rise as well. And that’s the trend that, unfortunately, we’ve been sort of stuck in.”

But statistics from across the country show more Canadians are requiring income support as well.

Since 2017, Statistics Canada has reported a five per cent increase in the number of people with disabilities. Recent data also indicates that 27 per cent of Canadians aged 15 or older reported their daily activities were limited by a disability — about eight million people.

It attributes that to two things: A rapidly aging population and a surge in mental health-related disabilities.

The agency’s survey also showed a positive narrowing of the employment gap, with more people reporting they were able to participate in the job market.

“There’s been an increase in part-time jobs and there’s been a decrease in permanent full-time, stable jobs with health and benefits. You have to look at other aspects of our social safety net as well,” Stevens said.

“It needs to be a balance. It can’t just be focused on the individuals, it needs to be focused on the labour market and the system as well.”

The Alberta government raised AISH benefits by 4.25 per cent at the start of this year. That means payments rose $76, up to $1,863 per month.

“Alberta’s government is committed to supporting vulnerable Albertans struggling with higher costs of living and provides the highest disability benefit among the 10 provinces,” a statement from the minister of seniors, community and social services’ office said.

The year-over-year increase in the Consumer Price Index indicated goods and services in Alberta cost 3.7 per cent more in September 2023 than they did the year before.

About the Author
Elise von Scheel is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Calgary and the producer of the West of Centre podcast. You can get in touch with her at  elise.von.scheel@cbc.ca.

Source CBC News Calgary

 

Also see
Program for low-income Calgarians to apply for city discounts grows by 34% in 2023 CBC
Alberta government to re-index AISH, seniors benefits to inflation CBC

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