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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Getting By on Social Assistance

Navigating the ‘welfare’ system

Robin Loxton

Reprinted from the "Income" issue of Visions Journal, 2011, 7 (2), p. 21

If you are living on disability assistance (also known as “Persons with Disability” or PWD benefits)—granted by the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) under provincial Employment and Assistance legislation—you already know the harsh reality: the cost of living is going up every year. The last increase in the disability rates was in 2007, and there is no hint as to when the next increase may come. So if you are only getting the current disability rate of $906 per month, it’s important to be aware of all the benefits that may be available to you.

In this article, I will go over the various benefits that are available to people on PWD, explain some recent changes in the income assistance system, and suggest some ways in which consumers can make the best of their situation.

Health supplements

Over and above the basic rates, you may be eligible for a number of supplements for specific health-related needs. The Ministry of Social Development has a number of special diet programs that can be applied for by people on assistance. For example, if you have diabetes, you are eligible to receive a diet supplement of $35 per month to cover your diabetic diet. If you have a chronic progressive deterioration of health (i.e., your health gets worse over time) and need nutritional supplements, you may qualify for the Monthly Nutritional Supplement of up to $205 per month. Unfortunately, there are no diet benefits that can be provided on the basis of a mental health diagnosis alone.

MSD can provide a number of other health supplements to people on PWD, such as optical services, a dental program, medical transportation, medical supplies and medical equipment. In 2010, however, a number of restrictions were introduced that impose limits on what kinds of items are covered and how much and how often MSD will pay for certain items. These changes have resulted in people being denied health needs such as foot orthotics. If you have been denied a health benefit, it’s always a good idea to speak to an advocate to see if anything can be done about it.

Crisis supplements

If you run out of money during the month and are in urgent need of money to pay for your basic needs, you can ask for a crisis supplement or grant. Crisis grants are payments that can cover urgent needs for things such as rent payment to avoid eviction or an outstanding hydro payment. The two crisis grant requests that are made most often are for food and clothing. An MSD worker can authorize up to $20 per month for food and up to $100 per year for clothing.

Remember, when asking for a crisis supplement, it’s important to stress that you have no money to pay for the needed items, you cannot get them from other sources, and you need them right away.

Income issues

A person on PWD is allowed to earn up to $500 per month before deductions are made to their cheque amount. It should be noted that this exemption applies to work-related income only. Other kinds of income, such as federal Canada Pension Plan (CPP) disability benefit payments* or child support payments from an ex-spouse, are not considered earnings, so are not counted as part of the $500.

If you have income from other sources, MSD requires you to report the income you receive during the month on your cheque stub. The cheque stub then has to be submitted by the fifth day of the following month. If your monthly income is the same each month, you don’t have to hand in the stub every month, just when your income changes.

MSD also offers various volunteer and training incentive programs, such as the Community Volunteer Supplement. It pays $100 per month if you volunteer for a non-profit society. However, there are long waiting lists for many of these programs.

Assets and savings

A single person on PWD is allowed to have up to $3,000 in savings. People who expect to receive a lump sum payment that exceeds this amount (such as an inheritance or insurance settlement) can protect this money by putting the funds into a trust or a Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP).

The RDSP is also an excellent long-term savings plan where people with disabilities can qualify for generous federal grants and bonds and can build assets (see RDSP resources listed at the end of the article).

Service delivery issues

Over the past couple of years, there have been significant changes to the way MSD provides services. A number of Employment and Assistance offices have closed, and people don’t have designated workers anymore. Call centres have been set up, and workers rely on a new computer system to keep track of information.

It’s not unusual to wait for 30 minutes to talk to someone on the phone. And if you have to go to the local office, you can end up waiting hours before talking to someone. We are told that workers are learning the new case management system and that things should improve in the future.

Advocacy tips

Dealing with the income assistance system can be frustrating and confusing. There are some things you do to increase your effectiveness. Here are some suggestions:

  • If you need to phone your office, be prepared to be on hold for a while. Don’t use a cell phone if you pay for your minutes.

  • If you have to go to the office and it isn’t urgent, try and avoid busy times. The week cheques are issued can be very busy. Don’t delay your visit if it’s urgent, but be prepared to wait.

  • Keep a record of your dealings with MSD. If you give them any paperwork, ask for a date-stamped copy.

  • You can ask a friend or family member to accompany you to an MSD appointment.

  • If you have your benefits reduced or a request denied, you have the right to know why. You also have the right to appeal a refusal or reduction in benefits.

  • There are advocates who can give you advice about your rights and MSD programs (see resources below).

  • Make sure you are up-to-date with your income tax filing. The HST and Climate Action Credits are income that will not reduce your disability benefits.

*For more on CPP disability benefits, see

About the author
Robin is Director of the Advocacy Access Program of the BC Coalition of People with Disabilities (BCCPD). He helped set up the program in 1989 and has been actively helping people qualify for disability benefits ever since. You can learn more about the advocacy program and BCCPD at

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