Cabinet shuffle prompts renewed fears over potential AISH cuts

By Sammy Hudes and Catherine Griwkowsky July 19, 2021

Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) clients say the appointment of Minister Jason Luan to helm the file has sparked new fears about potential cuts to the program, as signalled by the UCP government as an option last year before backing off in Budget 2021.

AISH recipients say their concerns are based on both the departure of Minister Rajan Sawhney from the community and social services portfolio and Luan’s previous track record as associate minister of mental health and addictions.

Sawhney, who was named transportation minister in the UCP’s July 8 cabinet shuffle, publicly vowed not to slash AISH funding last fall following backlash to the UCP’s review of the program, which Premier Jason Kenney hinted could result in scaled back eligibility in order to help the government “achieve savings.”

“There’s generally a very strong fear of the UCP and what they could do to AISH because people in poverty really feel that they don’t care about people in poverty,” AISH recipient Don Slater told AB Today. “People that are wealthy in the UCP don’t look at the vulnerable as people that should be taken care of. It’s a feeling of gloom and doom.”

Nearly 70,000 Albertans rely on AISH for income support to afford basic needs such as food and housing. AISH clients receive a maximum of $1,685 per month in basic benefits, totalling roughly $20,000 per year.

To qualify for the program, recipients must have a medical condition — the main factor limiting their ability to work — that is likely to remain permanent.

Slater, an advocate within the disability community, said he’s heard fellow AISH clients are “very pessimistic to terrified” about Luan’s appointment due to “his past work.”

“Everybody’s now fearful for their future,” he said.

During his time in mental health and addictions, Luan faced criticism from harm reduction advocates over the UCP’s move to defund “life-saving” services and close supervised consumption sites.

AISH recipient Ian Young noted that experts hailed those services as crucial supports for “the most vulnerable people.” He said he worries about the approach Luan might take toward other vulnerable Albertans like himself.

“His track record of making cuts seems to be extremely drastic and non-caring and non-consulting, so I just think that pattern is going to continue,” Young told AB Today. “With Minister Luan’s background, it’s on the mind of everybody. Everybody is extremely concerned.”

Luan’s office declined an interview request from AB Today. A list of emailed questions, including whether he would commit to keeping AISH funding and eligibility criteria at current levels, went unanswered.

“He is looking forward to diving into the Community and Social Services file and will be spending the coming weeks briefing up on his new portfolio,” Luan’s press secretary Justin Marshall said.

Legislation left door open to qualification changes: NDP critic
NDP Community and Social Services critic Marie Renaud said AISH clients are right to be concerned.

“It feels like they’re nickel and diming people that don’t have a nickel or a dime to spare,” Renaud said. “It just says a lot about this government’s priorities, and their really twisted ideology.”

In late 2019, the UCP de-indexed AISH payments from inflation, halting such benefits from increasing in line with the cost of living.

Renaud said the same omnibus legislation, Ensuring Fiscal Sustainability Act, left the door open for cabinet to change the definitions of a “severe disability” and the “ability to work.”

She fears potential changes could mean fewer people qualify for AISH and instead end up on the Income Support program — which provides clients about half the support AISH recipients receive as a baseline.

The NDP critic said she also worries the government could tinker with eligibility based on spousal income.

Renaud said the UCP’s contracted review by C.D. Howe last year did not involve consultation with the disability advocate or the Premier’s Council on the Status of Persons With Disabilities — two legislative bodies created to advise the government.

The UCP’s 2021 budget allocated $1.36 billion in funding for AISH this year — up from roughly $1.33 billion spent on the program in 2020, but about $4 million less than what the government forecasted in Budget 2020.

Young said the AISH community is “tired of being lied to and not being consulted.”

“There’s an old saying in the disability community — ‘nothing about us without us.’ Why did they not consult people when they started making these cuts?” he said. “We want a voice. We want to be heard. And if [Luan] were willing to sit down and have a meeting, that would be fantastic.”

Slater noted “life isn’t easy for a lot of us that are disabled.”

“We do our best to get by,” he said. “We just want people to understand that we’re not disabled by choice. Punching down on us is not going to make us get up out of our chairs and work.”