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'Next To Impossible' To Live On Income Assistance During Pandemic

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

Todd Donohue has been on disability assistance for the last 10 years. He says the money isn't stretching far enough due to rising prices during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Rachel Bergen

CBC News

A Winnipeg community advocate is calling on the province to do more to support the thousands of Manitobans who rely on employment and income assistance, and are living on an increasingly tight fixed income through the pandemic.

Todd Donohue, who suffers from Crohn's disease and was recently diagnosed with oral cancer, says the coronavirus pandemic has worsened the financial situation of people like him who use EIA — roughly 67,000 Manitobans currently, according to the province.

"Pre-COVID, it was still tough. The amount of money they give you to live off of is peanuts. It's still about the same amount of money that people were living off of in 1992," he said.

"Imagine trying to live off of a 1992 dollar today, in 2020. That's what it's like. Money doesn't go nearly as far."

While the cost of everything from food, toilet paper, and toiletries to rent is higher now, Donohue says, he's still living on just over $1,000 per month.

"We have people who are already struggling, struggling harder," during the pandemic, he says. "It's next to impossible to live on."

In an effort to keep EIA program workers from interacting with the public during the pandemic, the provincial government established a call centre in March so clients could contact their case representatives without in-person visits.

The province says "processing times remain within, and often surpass, pre-pandemic service levels," but Donohue says that hasn't been his experience.

"I called my worker two weeks ago and I still haven't gotten a call back. I've tried getting ahold of supervisors — no answer. Directors — no answer. The communication is completely lost."

Donohue says getting paperwork processed — including that for special dietary requirements, which means more money — can take twice as long as it used to.

Increasing EIA payments during the pandemic

Donohue is among a number of Manitobans calling on the government to increase EIA benefits during the pandemic.

The province has announced some one-time payments, including a $4.6 million program to give $200 to low-income Manitobans living with disabilities, $200 cheques sent to all seniors, and a one-time bonus for front-line workers.

But it hasn't followed the lead of the B.C. government, which announced in April it would temporarily add $300 to the monthly amount for 250,000 people on income and disability assistance.

Advocacy groups like Make Poverty History Manitoba have said a monthly increase like that could make a significant difference for Manitobans who live in poverty, and Donohue agrees.

"That would go a long way," he said. 

"That would help people keep their fridges full. They wouldn't be so reliant on food banks, they'd be able to have more of a social life — as social as you can be during the COVID, that is. They'd be able to afford things they normally couldn't afford."

That stability means more than single influxes of cash.

Just a couple of days ago, Donohue received a one-time $600 disability payment from the federal government. In the summer he received the province's one-time $200 payment.

"I was ecstatic," he said, adding he caught up on bills and filled his fridge up with food, but those payments didn't translate to long-term stability.

"It's kind of a sad state of affairs when you don't know from day to day what's going to happen."

Fear for the future

Donohue says he fears for the future, when Manitoba may look for cost savings to improve the economy.

Some pricey drugs, including one that can prevent HIV and another that treats cancer, aren't covered by the province's pharmacare program.

One of Donohue's medications to treat his Crohn's costs roughly $3,400 a month — more than three times his monthly income. It's not technically covered by his EIA and his doctor has to write to the government to have it paid for.

Donohue is worried the province might cut back on covering pricey medications like his.

"I'm seeing that happen already with some of the really expensive medications," he said.

"Then where will we be? We'll be screwed."


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