There is a tough choice being made by people living with a disability in New Brunswick.
In order to maintain their social assistance from the Department of Social Development, advocates say they are being forced to choose between basic income and living with the person they love.
The household income policy, or the HIP as it’s casually known, adjusts the amount of social assistance a person can get if they move in with another person.
Ability NB executive director Haley Flaro said that teeters on the lines of discrimination. In some cases, if benefits aren’t reduced, they are taken away entirely.
“People with a disability live away from their spouses just so they can have the income to meet their basic needs,” she said in an interview Thursday. “I’ve heard stories of people who had to choose to live separately over getting married.”
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Flaro said some interviews and research done with some St. Thomas University students revealed startling stories of people dealing with this policy, some, she described, as the worst she’s ever heard.
“Ability NB is really calling for the elimination of the household income policy for people with a disability and their spouses,” she said.
The problem isn’t just that spouses are living apart, Flaro explained, it is happening amid a housing crisis. People are being forced to occupy units unnecessarily because of the rules.
She said she is aware of at least 30 units being used due to the HIP.
Government stands by policy
Still, people facing the problem aren’t backing down.
A letter-writing campaign called Axe the HIP is underway. Pre-written letters are being sent to the Social Development Minister Bruce Fitch.
He was not available for an interview Thursday, however, in a statement the department said, “when it’s determined that two or more people have formed a household unit, the department reviews their eligibility for social assistance benefits and issues one cheque to the household.”
“The amount of income assistance provided is based on the number of people in a unit and on their available resources,” the statement said.
“This policy was developed to ensure that social development does not discriminate against people on the basis of gender, marital status, or sexual orientation,” the statement added.
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When asked about whether the department considered taking away social assistance from disabled individuals based on marital status as discriminatory, it declined to comment due to privacy.
Working on a brief for the department
Flaro said she is disappointed that despite announcing social development reform three years ago, there has been no progress.
However, Ken Pike, the director of social policy for the New Brunswick Association for Community Living, said it is preparing a brief for the department alongside 10 other advocacy groups, including Ability NB.
He said it is incredibly hard for people living with disabilities to face this because being able to live with someone you love is something everyone should be able to do.
“It’s what we call the adverse impact of the policy,” he said in an interview Thursday, “and is that impact significant enough that the policy should be changed? … we think in this case, it should.”
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