What is the Worth of Your Disability to Canada in Light of COVID-19?



No, the emergency disability benefit proposed in early June is not a monthly payment. Not even an annual one. The yet-to-be-approved program offers a one-time, tax-free payment of up to $600 per qualified applicant. It is expected to cost $595 million. In total, 1.33 million people can receive the benefit. If the program is to support all who face the challenge of living with a disability during the pandemic, the program will fall on its face. The once-in-a-lifetime payout is far from adequate, and only those who are qualified for the disability tax credit can get it.

Given the present daunting challenges even for able bodies, how about increasing the amount per recipient? As there are people who are disabled but aren’t qualified for the disability tax credit, how about expanding the reach of the program? Can Canada afford an enhanced version of the program? Let’s work through a scenario of an imaginary program. Assuming Canada has 38 million people, and assuming one in five faces some challenges in their daily lives due to disabilities, the number of potential participants in an expanded program would be 7.6 million. If each gets $600, such a program will cost $4.6 billion. Let’s triple the payment to $1,800 per person and thus the size of the enhanced program to $14 billion. According to the latest projection, the wealth share of the top 1% households is estimated to be almost 26% or over $3 trillion. Why not levy a 0.5% wealth tax on the top 1% to fund a $1,800 one-time COVID-19 payment for each of the 20% of Canadians?

The point of the scenario is not about the proper design of such a program that Canada sorely needs. The point is that if Canada cares enough about taking care of each other, Canada can find a way to fund it. Often objections against what many consider essential government support are framed in disincentives to work, i.e. the government support makes people lazy and unproductive. These objections assert that Canada can’t afford to spend on what many consider desperately needed programs because Canada can’t afford to upset the smooth operation of the free market. Evangelizing their faith in trickle-down economics couched in the mythology of competitive markets, someday the free marketers just might double down on workfare for disability claimants! The imposition of a ruthless drive to be more competitive in all aspects of human existence severely hinders the nurturing of a kinder, gentler society.

It’s as clear as mud when the meager disability program proposed in early June will be passed. The proposal is in limbo since it has become collateral damage in a seemingly trivial political spat. Should we hold our breath to wait for the emergency disability benefit? First employees/income earners got Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Then employers/small businesses got Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS). Both are estimated to cost over $50 billion respectively. Remember, the emergency disability program proposed in early June would only cost about 1.2% of each of the two big-ticket items. Ginormous programs for abled bodies have taken off, but a modest program for the disabled remains grounded. So, don’t hold your breath. There is no way to sugarcoat it – disability programs are not high on the list of spending priorities, even in the shadow of a historic crisis. The neglect is systemic.

July 1 is around the corner. The idea of Canada will be celebrated once again, albeit amid unsettling times. If being Canadian means that we take good care of each other, how should that elusive $600 make us feel? Shameful? Heartless? Definitely not Canadian.

- Professor Thaddeus Hwong