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Increases to Sask. disability and income support benefits not enough, opposition and advocates say

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People receiving Saskatchewan disability benefits will see their first increase in seven years but the opposition and advocates say that's not enough.

The 2023-24 provincial budget includes a $17.1 million increase to the Saskatchewan Assured Income Disability (SAID) program, which will cover basic benefits, approved private service homes, and personal care homes, according to the province.

Several recipients of the benefits program were at the Legislature on Monday calling for the funding, saying they can’t make ends meet anymore.

The government had hinted that more money could be announced in this budget and the NDP said they would be watching closely to make sure it’s an increase that reflects reality.

“What I hope we don’t see with this SAID increase is something like we saw with the SIS, where they gave a buck a day and that didn’t even make up for the cuts that were represented across the board under the program,” said NDP MLA Meara Conway on Monday.

According to the 2023-24 budget, SAID clients will receive $30 more per month in living income benefits, which represents an additional $6.4 million in benefit programs.

The Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS) program also received an increase in the budget, including a $14.3 million addition to the Adult Basic Benefit, the Shelter Benefit and the Alternative Heating Benefit by $30 each per month.

The Senior’s Income Plan (SIP) monthly benefit will also rise by $30 per month.

The Personal Care Home Benefit will increase by up to $400 per month and SAID clients who are under 65-years-old who live in personal care homes will receive up to $684 more per month.

After the budget was unveiled on Wednesday, NDP leader Carla Beck said those struggling to make ends meet deserve more.

“I wish I could stand before you and say that at least I’m happy that the Sask. Party made some investments and increased income assistance for the most vulnerable in our province,” she said. “A dollar a day for the most vulnerable who are facing homelessness and food insecurity, a dollar a day. I think Scott Moe’s generosity knows no boundaries.”

NDP MLA Trent Wotherspoon echoed Beck’s statements.

“We see a government that’s failing the most vulnerable, that’s put them in such a precarious situation and now they suggest that a buck a day is going to help those that are living such a difficult situation, living on the margins,” he said.

During legislative proceedings before the budget was unveiled on Wednesday, NDP MLA Meara Conway presented a petition to increase ‘meaningfully’ SAID rates in the province.

“Individuals who rely on SAID have significant and enduring disabilities and face barriers to employment,” she said. “We launched this petition on Monday with hundreds of signatures from over 50 communities from every corner of the province.”

REACTIONS TO SAID AND SIS INCREASES

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Peter Gilmer, an advocate with the Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry said he is disappointed with the SAID benefit increase, especially given the high inflation period.

“People with significant and enduring disabilities are left with only a $30 increase when there’s much more significant catch up to be made on that front,” he said.

Speaking on the SIS program, Gilmer said while a benefit increase is welcome, he is concerned that basic utilities are not included.

“People are having to pay for their power, energy, and water, basic phone, out of a very limited or inadequate shelter benefit and that’s caused a crisis both in terms of gaining and maintaining housing, and also being able to maintain utilities,” he said.

“The reality is with the shelter benefit provided on the SIS program, many people can’t afford to pay their rent.”

Gilmer said we are seeing a breakdown of a social safety net stemming from houselessness and affordability issues.

“The kind of social cohesion of our society in many ways has been disintegrating in recent years,” he said. “There’s always been inadequacy in our programs, but it’s been particularly bad and particularly visible over the course of the last few years.”

Marina Pelletier, a Regina resident who has been on the SAID program for the past five years, said it has been a constant struggle.

“Especially during the pandemic, with no raise in money, there’s literally so much that I had to take into consideration before buying anything, like feminine hygiene products, I had to sometimes not buy them,” she said. “I had to skip meals because I could not afford the meal.”

“And 30 bucks, seriously? That’s basically a slap across the face and saying you basically should get nothing,” she added.

Pelletier said most of her money goes to rent and bills, leaving not much for food and other essentials.

“That’s not enough,” she said.

“I want to challenge [the government] to actually live on the SAID program for two years with how it is right now and if they can tell me they can survive, I would be impressed.”

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, NDP MLA Meara Conway shared her concerns.

“It is a slap in the face, it’s just not enough, and for the government not to be able to defend this number in any way that is connected to reality is really concerning. They’re just not taking this issue seriously and it’s tough, it’s hard to watch," she said.

“These rates were brutally insufficient before this inflationary crisis. A buck a day.”

Premier Scott Moe said it's better than what the previous NDP government offered.

“A program that under the NDP didn’t get a dollar a day lift, didn’t get a dollar a week lift, didn’t get a dollar a month lift, it didn’t get a dollar in sixteen years lift, Mr. Speaker, because it didn’t exist. It exists today thanks to this government,” he said during question period on Thursday.

The government said this year's SAID benefit increase amounts to six per cent. The opposition claims it's only half that. Either way, many living on the SAID benefit feel it's not enough to make ends meet.

OVERALL SOCIAL SERVICES BUDGET

The overall budget for social services and assistance has increased to $1.7 billion, which is up 2.5 per cent from last year’s budget.

The budget boasts a record $1.4 billion for the Ministry of Social Services, an increase of $46.7 million over last year’s.

The ministry will use over $400 million of their funding to put towards community based organizations (CBOs). Funding for CBOs is also provided through other ministries, including health and education.

"CBOs have a critical role in helping create positive outcomes and a better quality of life for Saskatchewan's people who need support and assistance," Harpauer said in a news release from the province. "This increase helps organizations address operational pressures and recruit and retain qualified staff."

ADDITIONAL SOCIAL SERVICES FUNDING

In a news release, social services minister Gene Makowsky said this year's budget increases supports for vulnerable people and familiies.

"Targeted funding provides higher monthly benefits for clients, increased funding for partners in service delivery and new initiatives to support positive outcomes for Saskatchewan people," he said in the release.

Supports for at-risk families, children, and youth will increase by $10.5 million in this budget, including increasing the number of Child Service Workers and expanding the Supportive Living Program services to 17 families.

Foster families and extended family caregivers will receive an additional $825,000 to help cover the costs of caring for children.

In a media release, the Saskatchewan Foster Families Association (SFFA) said they are pleased to support the funding increase.

"This most recent budget increase builds upon the previous increases and truly recognizes the important role that foster families and family-based caregivers play in providing a safe and supportive network for children and youth in crisis," said SFFA executive director Deb Davies in the release.

Two Indigenous-led pilot projects received $7.7 million, to provide supportive housing and services for people experiencing homelessness in Regina and Saskatoon.

There is a $170,000 increase in the budget to enhance services for deaf and deafblind people in the province.

- With files from CTV News Regina's Wayne Mantyka

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