Quebec’s government apparatus is gearing up for guaranteed minimum income. The signs can be found in the Quebec 2016-2017 budget documents made public on March 17, 2016. However, they contain clear evidence of systemic discrimination against unemployed persons living alone. The income they are currently guaranteed compares badly to that which is guaranteed to families faced with the same circumstances.
Here’s the situation as is currently stands.
Three reference points for the debates taking shape
Discussions of guaranteed minimum income began during the January 2016 Cabinet shuffle. François Blais returned as Minister of Employment and Social Solidarity with a mandate to “look into improving our income support tools in the direction of implementing a guaranteed minimum income.”
Then, in a short sentence of his Budget Speech, the Finance Minister linked the enhancement of the Work Premium to the existing “socio-fiscal benefits.” These will “underpin the reflection process [his] colleague the Minister of Employment and Social Solidarity will be undertaking during the work that is starting on the matter of guaranteed minimum income.”
The 580-page Economic Plan detailing the budget measures contains a discreet two-paragraph box on page B.52 announcing the upcoming creation of a committee of experts for an initial assessment of the project. These two paragraphs, when read closely, reveal the strong “incentive to work” bias of the studies to come.
It’s in a third budget-related document, a supplementary budget paper that we find the first specifications, so to speak, of what will be examined in this project. Entitled “The Québec Income Support Program,” it reviews the current state of federal and provincial protections guaranteeing household income in Quebec.
Even if some of the data presented has been altered by the new measures contained in the federal budget (which came out a few days later), this paper will be very useful for those preparing for the next months’ debates. It outlines the social and fiscal pact that will need to be redefined to better guarantee household incomes.
In the process, the paper spells out an important incongruity—without emphasizing or even naming it—that must be taken into account closely during these debates. It relates to the current guaranteed income for households without work incomes.
Systemic discrimination against people living alone
Any discussion of guaranteed income implies a comparison between the income that one earns through one’s own work and investments, on the one hand, and one’s disposable income after taxes and transfers, on the other hand. It also means looking into what is guaranteed to households that have no other income with which to live than social protections.
The budget paper looks into this, indicating on page 41 that “a couple with two children and no work income receives financial assistance of roughly $30,000.” On page 43, financial assistance is indicated for other household types, and we learn that “a person living alone receives nearly $10,000”.
Here lies the rub. First, this “nearly $10,000” is an embarrassing approximation, because we find out on page 47 that the disposable income for a person without work income living alone is actually $9,192, which is closer to $9,000 than to $10,000.
The main issue however lies elsewhere, and to understand it, we need a key, which is not provided in this document.
As Simon Tremblay-Pepin and Vivian Labrie wrote in a recent study about the income that households lack to cover their basic needs, we must use an equivalence scale to compare the income of households of differing sizes.
The equivalence scale used in Canada and in Quebec to determine for instance the Market Basket Measure (MBM) thresholds is the square root of the household size. Without getting bogged down into the technicalities of this method, which takes into account the fact that it costs more to live alone than with others, let’s simply say that to estimate an equivalent income for a person living alone, we must divide in half the income attributed to a family of two adults and two children.
We now have the key to go and look back at the data presented in the budget document.
If, in our society, government protections guarantee an income of around $30,000 to a family of two adults and two children without work income, then in fairness (beyond any argument about covering basic needs, which would lead to higher thresholds), applying the same logic should lead to half of that income being guaranteed to a person without work income living alone, i.e. around $15,000, not $9,192.
This discrepancy in guaranteed income qualifies as systemic discrimination against a certain category of people: persons living alone. This blatant discrimination has carried on for decades. It also means that we better protect the income of persons higher in the income scale also living alone.
Fallacious and harmful arguments conceal this systemic discrimination. Examples include the arguments currently being used in relation to Bill 70 to try and justify that mandatory measures be reintroduced in social welfare for certain categories of beneficiaries, otherwise will see their benefits, no longer be guaranteed, cut.
That will all need to be reviewed, with this key in hand, to have a guaranteed income system that holds up.
Vivian Labrie is an associate-researcher with IRIS, a Montreal-based progressive think tank.