After four years of pushback, Alberta’s UCP government is reversing its decision to make Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) and income support payments on the first of every month.
In a news release Friday morning, the Seniors, Community and Social Services Ministry announced that AISH and income-support cheques will go out four business days ahead of each month, starting with the March payment.
Minister Jason Nixon said it’s important to “alleviate financial pressures” for those who rely on the benefits.
“This move aims to provide people with additional time to pay rent, manage their financial obligations and avoid incurring any unnecessary late charges,” he said in the release.
‘It’s been people running with their heads cut off’
Beginning in March, 2020, amid budget deficits, the UCP under premier Jason Kenney shifted payment dates for those receiving AISH and income support to the first of the month — rather than a few days prior.
Mary Salvani, an advocate and ally for people with disabilities, has been vocal since that change was made, and on Friday said she’s happy the government is reverting to the previous schedule.
“I felt like it’s been people running with their heads cut off just trying to get everything paid on time,” Salvani told Postmedia. Some fellow recipients were even threatened with eviction, she said.
“They should apologize to those that were affected by the change that they did,” Salvani said, noting that includes not just those on AISH, but landlords as well.
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NDP community and social services critic Marie Renaud also said the government owes recipients an apology after some were hit with fees for late rent payments, bank charges for insufficient funds, the prospect of getting a payday loan or having to borrow money to get a bus pass.
“It’s just so awful that the UCP made them wait for four years,” said Renaud, who wasn’t giving the UCP credit for the announcement.
“This is just them cleaning up their mess,” she said.
In 2020, the government said the move was meant to help recipients by making payments more consistent from one month to the next, but instead of praise, it sparked an outcry.
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“They changed the dates, really, to make their books look better,” said Renaud.
Then-minister Rajan Sawhney defended the decision at the time in the legislature, denying that it was an effort to shuffle spending from one budget year to another.
In November 2020, Auditor General Doug Wylie flagged the province’s recording of only 11 months of AISH and income support benefit costs, saying in a report it “was not in accordance with public sector accounting standards.”
That meant the ministry responsible, then called Community and Social services, had underestimated 2019—2020 AISH program expenses by $102 million, and income support expenses by $50 million, an error that was later corrected, pushing the department $120 million over budget in 2020-21.
It isn’t the only change to government supports made early on in the Kenney era to come full circle. In 2019, the newly-elected UCP government stopped growing AISH payments, along with income support and seniors benefits, to reflect increases in the cost of living. It was expected to save the government $300 million by 2023, but beginning Jan. 1, 2023, the UCP government reversed that decision, re-indexing benefits to inflation.
That continued this January, with AISH, income support, and seniors benefits going up 4.25 per cent this year.
Salvani said she’s glad the payments have been increased.
“I just don’t think they went up enough,” she said, noting that more and more recipients of AISH are relying on other supports like food banks.
“I’d like to see it reflect the actual cost of living in Alberta.”
Almost 76,000 Albertans now receive AISH benefits, while about 50,000 Albertans receive income support benefits.
The current maximum living allowance for those on AISH is $1,863 monthly, which comes to $22,356 annually — $5,529.50 below the poverty line in Edmonton.
Income support varies, depending on whether a recipient is expected to work or has barriers to full employment, from $790 to $959 per month.
The 2024-25 provincial budget is expected to be released at the end of February.