Happy Birthday? Anxious pandemic times for people living in poverty

About a year ago, my father passed away. This left me to deal with all the things one must do to put a loved one’s affairs in order: many visits to Service Canada; letters and phone calls to Veterans’ Affairs; memos to lawyers’ offices and to a funeral home to procure original documents. No scans are allowed. Every piece of paper must be an original.

I can only wonder what it’s like during a pandemic when there are more deaths and offices are closed. I can imagine that paperwork for births must be just as challenging although more joyous.

But there are a whole set of other obstacles for low income people who would otherwise celebrate important birthdays during a pandemic.

Let’s think about a couple of them.

Turning 18

The one that troubles me the most is children turning 18 during the pandemic. For a poor family, a child turning age 18 means the loss of $7,160 in child benefits over the next 12 months.

If the family is receiving social assistance, they do get a couple of hundred dollars per month for the adult child’s basic needs and shelter. Then the child assumes the status of a ‘dependent adult’ and becomes a person living with parents.

Where newly minted 18 year olds cannot immediately establish their legal independence, they cannot obtain social assistance in their own right.

Nevertheless, any earnings that they realize can reduce the social assistance paid to their parents unless they can achieve independence within the household. This is hard to do.

During a pandemic where ‘service entry’ jobs are more difficult to find, additional adults in the family with no money become an onerous responsibility as they remain mouths to feed with no income coming in. They also become persons that continue to require lodging with little capacity to contribute to rental costs.

And if they do earn income (as noted), the family’s social assistance is further reduced.

If the same family lives in subsidized housing[1], things can be complicated as the dependent adult may be required to contribute to rent if they have income. The parent’s housing could be at risk if they cannot persuade their child to contribute, or they may find themselves  over-housed[2] if the child chooses to move out instead. Although the parent can remain overhoused for 12 months before they themselves would be required to move to a smaller unit, this can still be stressful – especially during a pandemic.

For a lone parent family receiving Ontario Works or ODSP where the only child or last child is turning 18, it’s not just loss of income that they face – it’s the loss of status. The 5 year old blog from Tess referenced here notes the three big changes that occur including a forced reassessment in the financial relationship between a mother or father and their last or only child.

During a pandemic, long term plans get made and unmade over and again.

But all those plans for work, education and independence for both parents and children can and will quickly change during a pandemic. The policy of ‘forced dependency’ of young adults did not work at the best of times but during a pandemic, it is simply toxic. They should be allowed to get benefits in their own right once their parents lose their child benefits at 18.

Turning 65

Turning 18 during a pandemic when living in poverty is a big problem but turning 65 while on ODSP can also create issues.

On the face of it, anyone turning 65 while on social assistance leaves a highly stigmatized program for a program that one qualifies for as a matter of right.

And the money one receives at 65 looks to be far better under the Old Age Security program.

The maximum benefit under ODSP is $1,169 a month and OAS combined with the guaranteed income supplement and the GAINS-A program is as high as $1,635 a month, $466 higher. What’s not to like?

But ODSP pays for basic dental care and various medical supplies, special diets and travel, the costs of which can quickly mount up. OAS pays for none of this. Many very disabled people easily run up monthly bills that can cost more than their higher income will pay for.

And, if you live in subsidized housing, your rent jumps from the ODSP rent of $109 to a minimum of over $500 a month since subsidized housing charges rent geared to income of 30% of every cent that a senior tenant gets from government and elsewhere.

They are still getting a very good rental deal in subsidized housing but recipients are often surprised by the rent hike that occurs at age 65.

Combine that with the loss of ODSP supports and services and many new seniors with profound disabilities find themselves with less money than before. Most don’t know that ODSP may continue to help them past age 65.

Happy Birthday!

This is all bad enough at the best of times but during a pandemic, the very disabled are the most immune compromised and they have the further co-morbidity of advanced age. With admonitions to stay indoors and stay safe as daily infections rise, the additional costs of groceries being delivered – added to the cost of other deliveries – can mount up fast.

And if you do have to travel for example to a medical appointment, you are now paying the freight as a senior – on your own – disabled or not.

So what can we do about important birthdays during a pandemic? Well, first we can be aware of them and have governments start to think about putting aside extra funds for people whose birthdays – all on their own – cause unwelcome losses in program eligibility.

The whole idea in a pandemic is to stay safe.

So let’s make sure that celebrating an important birthday does not lead to hardships that force us to make unsafe decisions.

Life’s important passages are supposed to bring joy. They should not signal new and unexpected hardship.

[1] https://openpolicyontario.com/guest-blog-from-tess-when-your-child-turns-18-on-a-low-income-three-big-changes-for-a-lone-parent/

[2] https://www.torontohousing.ca/residents/your-tenancy/Pages/overhoused-underhoused-procedures.aspx