Alberta’s UCP government announced tangible steps last week to help address the affordability crisis for vulnerable Albertans living on a fixed income, and for those who may be in desperate food need in communities by re-indexing the Alberta Seniors Benefit, AISH (Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped) and other income supports to the cost of inflation, and by providing $20 million in additional funding to food banks across the province over the next two years.
“We know that the cost of inflation is hard on all Albertans, but particularly so for our most vulnerable people on fixed income,” Alberta Minister of Seniors, Community and Social Services, Jeremy Nixon, told the Airdrie City View in a recent interview. “So giving that immediate bump to people with disabilities in Alberta, for seniors, people that require income support, as well as children and families, is going to be so important to helping address those immediate concerns. And could be the difference (instead) of deciding between food and rent for a lot of folks.”
Nixon said the re-indexing of these benefits would mean a six per cent boost in monthly income supports for these vulnerable Albertans starting in the next month.
However, the increase will not be retroactive, confirmed Nixon. Instead his government would provide $100 in extra funding per month over the next six months to give a little extra boost over the short term.
According to NDP Opposition Critic for Seniors, Community and Social Services, Marie Renaud, this failure by the UCP to acknowledge its culpability in the damage it has done over the last three years to people’s lives and incomes by not retro-acting these increases back to 2019 comes as cold comfort.
“In 2019, we knew instantly this (de-indexing) was going to be a problem, and it would continue to escalate as the months and years went by,” Renaud argued. “And, indeed, it created a massive hole. In the ensuing three years, people have fallen further and further behind.”
Renaud said every time the NDP has raised the de-indexing issue with the UCP over the past three years, they have heard “nothing but crickets.”
“So finally, six months before an election, with ginormous additional funds they have because of oil and gas, they finally decide to do it … It’s outright vote-buying, in my opinion,” she said.
Nixon said his government preferred to focus on helping those struggling today with immediate support and solutions, and was “excited” to bring AISH, the Alberta Seniors’ Benefit and the Income Support program back in line with the Consumer Price Index going forward.
His government was also excited to extend $20 million in additional funding to food banks over the next two years to help shore up the food security networks for vulnerable Albertans. Nixon said maintaining a strong food bank network is critical to supporting Albertans who are facing food insecurity in challenging economic times.
“Unfortunately, anytime anybody has to find themselves in a situation where they need to rely on (a food bank), it would be more unfortunate if it wasn’t available for them,” said Nixon.
According to Nixon, food banks are facing a crisis on two fronts, with increased need leading to increased demand taxing the system, and volunteer burnout as that increased demand pushes food banks to their limit.
“It has created a lot of additional pressures for food banks,” he acknowledged. “At the same time you are seeing...inflation going up, and the cost of everything going up, so there is an increased need for people relying on that food bank. It’s kind of a perfect storm for them, and that’s why we are coming in to address it now, to make sure they have the resources to meet the growing need.”
However, that $20 million in funding over two years is not all free and clear. Nixon said his government would pay out $5 million annually outright and expect communities to provide matching donations to access the other $5 million per year.
“We are trying to build on the success food banks have with regards to their ability to mobilize and the broader community in the work that they do, and incentivize giving,” he stated.
Renaud, the NDP’s critic, said leveraging community support is important, but she noted the $20 million was insufficient to meet the needs of food banks in Alberta, particularly when the actual dollar value on the table amounts to only $5 million per year and there are over 100 food banks in Alberta who will have to divvy that up between them.
“In government speak, this is just padding an announcement; let’s be honest about that,” she said.
Renaud also found a disconnect in the government’s thinking when it comes to leveraging that additional $5 million per year. Food banks, she argued, are already overtaxed and suffering from severe shortages in volunteers and other personnel without adding extra pressures like this to their already heavy workload.
“For them to have to fundraise to get additional money, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me right now,” stated Renaud. “I think it is important to leverage resources, and there are generous people willing to match – that’s great. But I think right now it is a crisis, and this government needs to put their personal, political priorities aside and look at the problem.”