Raise the rates and leave the bus pass alone.
That’s the call from over 15,000 people who signed a petition organized by Inclusion B.C. asking the government not to change the way people with disabilities (PWD) receive transportation benefits, as announced in the budget.
“The government’s couching this as a choice for individuals, when in fact fundamentally there’s no choice for those folks who are recipients of PWD,” said Geoff Wright, a director with Inclusion B.C., an association of agencies that support people with developmental disabilities.
“I and the signatories to the petition feel the government has given $77 a month increase with one hand and taken $52 away with the other,” he said after delivering a copy of the petition to the Parksville office of Social Development Minister Michelle Stilwell while the original was delivered to the premier’s office.
“These people are living on the edge. They’re essentially living in poverty and they need a bus pass to get around the town,” Wright said.
“My daughter for example, has to live in a part of Nanaimo where the rents are cheap, because she gets $916 a month and she’s paying over $700 for rent. So she needs a bus pass to get anywhere. She has a very part-time job, she needs a bus for that. She needs a bus to get to her doctors or to get to the cheapest grocery store and bus to any activity,” Wright said, suggesting she is representative of many PWD.
“So they have a choice, they can choose the bus pass and get $25 a month increase, or if you don’t want the bus pass then you can get $77.
“For the government to suggest that there’s a choice just tells you that they’re out of touch with how these people live,” Wright said.
Parksville-Qualicum MLA Michelle Stilwell stands by her ministry’s move.
“I understand the petition as being part of people hoping for more of an increase in their income assistance cheques,” she said, adding “The government has made a $170 million investment to raise the rates for people with disabilities in this budget.”
She stressed that, “the biggest thing is that the bus pass program has not been removed. No one has been denied access or is losing their bus pass. It is absolutely still available to those who want to receive it, and the government is supporting them to do that.”
“I think many people were hoping for more and we will certainly continue making the investments we can to strengthen our social safety net,” she said.
She said the changes make the assistance a lot more equitable since 45,000 people didn’t have access to a transportation subsidy, and those who want can still use the subsidized bus pass program, buying a monthly pass for $52 plus a $45 annual administration fee.
“Providing the funds to individuals directly puts the money into their hands for their independence and their choice and ability to make some critical decisions,” she said of the change which she said came out of consultation with people with disabilities.
She said the old system was unfair to people “living in communities like 100 Mile House or Quesnel, smaller communities, even Boundary, where a monthly bus pass can be as little as $35 or $24,” as well as people in areas without any public transportation.
She added that a pass can cost upwards of $170 per month in places like Vancouver, so the $52 government bus pass saves a lot.
She said 43.6 percent of PWD on Vancouver Island were not receiving a transportation allowance, “so that’s 9,520 people who now will see a $77 increase and have transportation options.”
“When you think of, especially in our community, those individuals who live in say Errington, Coombs, Whiskey Creek, they don’t have the bus pass, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have transportation needs.”
While Wright appreciates the bus pass program, he said the issue is the small increase, which he called “ridiculous, woefully inadequate when you consider this is the first increase in over nine years.”
The $77 is an increase of 8.4 percent to the PWD assistance base rate of $916 a month. Inflation over the same nine-year period was 11.7 per cent according to the Bank of Canada.
“And then, though the government puts a different spin on it, they’re going to be charging the recipients $52 for the bus pass, so people that take the bus will only actually get a $25 a month increase.”
He added that the budget speech in which the change was announced included a lot “about how B.C. had the strongest economy and the greatest prospects of any province in the country, so people see this as a disconnect.”
“If we’re in this excellent financial situation, how come we’re asking people to pay $52 for the bus pass?”
Stilwell similarly said it’s key that “the government is in a position where we are growing the economy and we have been able to put lots of money into other areas of government as well,” pointing to health care, the Ministry of Children and Families, and “the $456 million (more) to my ministry, which includes the increase to the rates as well as an investment in Community Living B.C.”
She boasted that after the increase B.C. will have the fourth highest PWD rates in the country.
But Wright said that just shows they actually do have the money to help if they wanted.
“Yes we need that rate increase,” Wright said, “in fact we need more, but leave the bus pass alone.”