Source: Jim Wells/Postmedia

During a conference on Sept. 15, Jason Kenney announced the provincial government would be examining eligibility for Alberta’s Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) program. “Initially, AISH was a program designed for the severely handicapped,” he said. “But… how do we define severely handicapped in this day and age? So, those are the kinds of issues they’re looking at.” Understandably, this announcement prompted a wave of concern. Nearly 70,000 Albertans rely on AISH to pay for basic necessities. A change in eligibility criteria would be damaging to potentially thousands of people. 

This wouldn’t be the UCP’s first negative change to disability support in their relatively short tenure. As part of last year’s budget, the UCP moved to deindex AISH, even though they campaigned on the opposite. This means that payments will no longer be adjusted to match inflation. An economist at the University of Calgary noted that this could potentially mean a $65 loss of buying power next year and a $100 loss the year after that, depending on the rate of inflation. While this may not seem like much at first glance, AISH is capped off at about $1,685 a month, or roughly $20,000 a year. AISH recipients struggle to get by on barely the absolute minimum. A decrease of even $65 could be a matter of being forced to choose between transportation or groceries for a month. 

In a similar move, seemingly designed only to cause trouble for AISH recipients, the UCP has changed the payment dates. While previously payments were sent a few days before the end of the month, they’re now being sent at the first of each month. AISH recipients have noted that this completely unnecessary move has made it more difficult to pay for things like bills, rent, and bus passes. 

Perhaps the most outrageous change is AISH’s exclusion from Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) benefits. While many AISH recipients rely on AISH as their sole source of income, some are well enough to be able to supplement it with part-time work. Those who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and are eligible for CERB have found their payments deducted from what they would have been receiving from AISH. The government also announced that for families receiving AISH, only their first $875 would be exempt from CERB. Any money over that would be deducted at a rate of 75 per cent. This means that those on CERB who are married to AISH recipients are finding what they’re making from CERB deducted from their partner’s payments. This is a draconian attack on some of the province’s most vulnerable people. 

Although the government has said it won’t implement open cuts, this shouldn’t come as a relief to anyone. They’re clearly doing everything they can to defund the program indirectly. Likewise, there’s no reason to believe that they’d stick to such a promise. The UCP promised not to cut healthcare as well. But it wasn’t too long after being elected that they announced the elimination of 500 full-time nursing positions—a measure that was only clawed back due to the pandemic. They’ve already lied about deindexing AISH. There’s no reason they wouldn’t lie about cutting it. 

The UCP’s treatment of AISH has been some of the most reprehensible in their already long list of reprehensible policies. Any cuts, direct or indirect, need to be fought against with the full force of organized labour. The AUPE has already denounced the UCP in this regard, but they need to take it a step further. Alberta’s labour leadership needs to commit to organized labour action in opposition to the government’s AISH policies as part of a wider coalition for workers’ and disabled rights. Any cuts to AISH will not only be catastrophic to those relying on it, but will be used as the basis for further anti-worker repression. This is yet another reason why workers cannot live under Jason Kenney’s regime. We need to build towards a one-day general strike and bring down this reactionary government.