Slyly making dire changes to social assistance legislation “to allow a better match between training and jobs and to facilitate labour market entry,” Bill 70 is set to be the worst infringement upon the Act to Combat Poverty and Social Exclusion since it was passed with unanimous support from Quebec’s National Assembly in December 2002. The bill hampers a long history of civic action in favour of social assistance and income protection to which the 2002 Act had contributed in a way that was just starting to bear its fruits, both in the government’s actions and in people’s minds. If the proposed changes come into law, they will do major damage.
This historical perspective has been lacking in the disapproval and condemnation with which the bill has been met. It is time to refresh our collective memory.
Since Quebec’s Social Aid Act was passed in 1969, its history has been interspersed with periodical attempts by governments to dilute the legislation’s acknowledgement that there exists a “right to social aid for all individuals lacking means of subsistence […] regardless of the cause of the need” as well as a “right to equality before the law for all persons” — to borrow from the words used by the minister as he presented the bill before a parliamentary committee. Various reforms, each vigorously denounced and fought against by large civic coalitions, have attempted to establish various forms of categorizations, modulating the level of income protection according to age, supposed capacity for work, cohabitation choices, and so on.
There were also attempts to make accessing the aid conditional, even to limit it to forms of forced labour—workfare policies in which people have to work in return for their benefits—combined with penalties for refusing to enrol in employment assistance measures. Invariably, these forms of social control have helped turn the spotlight onto the behaviours, supposed deserving or undeserving, of the poorest. In the meantime, at the other end of the income spectrum, a far richer fraction of the population has once again concentrated income for its own benefit.
This is what it comes down to, once more, with Bill 70—the difference being that this time the government is stepping outside of the Act to Combat Poverty. This piece of legislation acknowledges that people at the bottom of the pyramid are the first to try to pull through and affirms the principle of an untouchable income floor for social assistance. Let’s take a closer look.
1997-2010: Civic victories leading to the end of welfare penalties and steps towards the principle of basic needs coverage in social assistance
We must understand the context that lead a whole swat of civic organizations to create in 1998 the Collectif pour une loi sur l’élimination de la pauvreté, an advocacy group demanding legislation to eliminate poverty.
The aim was specifically to oppose a social assistance reform that would have instated high penalties for beneficiaries if they refused employment or enrolment in programs at a time when there were not even enough measures and jobs available. Moreover, the benefits already left them destitute. The strategy was to propose framework legislation as well as a program that would commit Quebec society and its political institutions to a combination of actions and transformations that could rid Quebec of poverty within ten years.
Thanks to two years of research and consultations across Quebec, the collective drafted proposed legislation (2000) which gained such wide acceptance in civil society that it led the government to introduce a bill to combat poverty and social exclusion. Without taking it as far as the citizens’ proposal, the law, passed that same year, set the province’s society and its political institutions on the right path to “strive towards a poverty-free Québec.”
In its preamble, the law considers that “persons living in poverty and social exclusion are the first to act to improve their situation and that of their families, and [that] such improvement is linked to the social, cultural and economic development of the entire community,” an implicit acknowledgement that the issue of societal action lies beyond this initial agreed upon individual action. It also forcefully introduces, in section 15, a “minimum benefit principle, a threshold below which benefits cannot be reduced by reason of the application of administrative penalties, setoff or a combination of both.” Three years later, in 2005, social assistance legislation was altered accordingly: it recognized explicitly in section 2 that the first impulse to get out of poverty lies in the hands of those living in poverty and put an end to penalties for refusing employment or employment assistance measures.
When it comes to the amount of benefits, in 2009, the Centre d’étude sur la pauvreté et l’exclusion sociale (CEPE, Centre for the Study of Poverty and Social Exclusion) proposed the Market Basket Measure (MBM) as an indicator to monitor situations of poverty in terms of basic needs coverage. That same year, the Comité consultatif de lutte contre la pauvreté et l’exclusion sociale (CCLPES, Advisory Committee for the Fight Against Poverty and Social Exclusion) recommended the MBM as target income for social assistance. It would eventually double the basic benefit for an individual deemed to have no limitations to employment. Various departmental publications pointed out the need to adopt social protections allowing for at least that level of coverage, but it didn’t lead to any consequential improvements.
2015: Back to confusing right to and obligation to work and enrol in employment assistance measures
Bill 70 is compromising this slow progression toward a more suitable basic income protection in the off-putting form of a law filled with amending provisions (which affect other laws). It is therefore completely incomprehensible without the legislation to be amended.
Under the pretence of lifting young applicants out of a so-called “family welfare culture,” regulation will force all that apply for social assistance to join the Objectif employ program. Even with the basic benefit supplement, the amount will remain below the MBM.
New beneficiaries will have to conform to the program’s measures and accept jobs offered, under penalty of losing this supplement on their first strike. They could even lose up to half their basic social assistance benefit if they reject other offers. They might also have to agree to travel or even to move within the territory to meet the alleged labour needs.
The 1998 confusion between the right and obligation to work and enrol in employment assistance measures is back. How are we meant to believe the labour needs argument when the CCLPES reminds us that “in 2014, there were 41,700 vacant positions in Quebec for a total of 340,300 unemployed, i.e. a position for every 8.2 unemployed persons”? How are we meant to believe in the need to enforce employment assistance measures for the poorest while the associated budget has been slashed nearly every year since 2003 and excellent training programs offered by community organizations succumbed to this year’s austerity cuts?
Who benefits from the confusion?
This manoeuvre meets the goal of disciplining and coercing a labour force apprehensive of income insecurity. The aim is certainly not to support the poorest in their efforts to improve their living conditions and to acknowledge their full potential.
The bill comes at a time when a variety of actors have recognized the importance of moving the current social assistance system toward less stigmatizing and more universal forms of income guarantee. This evolution would be the next step in the road to a poverty-free Quebec, along with the need to adapt the job market to people rather than the other way around, as the CCLPES has advised.
We can also see in this manoeuvre a diversion that masks all that is taking place higher up on the social ladder.
Between 1997 and 2011, the standard of living of the richest quintile of the population increased more than the equivalent of the net income of the poorest quintile, while the tax rate for this richest quintile went down from 26% to 22%. And let’s not forget the richest 1%!
The $50 million that will be saved—thanks to that shrapnel shell of a legislation that is Bill 70—will cost much more in lost health. The latter will boost public dollars reallocated to a medical profession whose revenues monopolize an increasingly large portion of the funds pooled in public finances, in the name of collective solidarity and the “right to equality before the law for all persons.”
It begs the question: where should we be looking on the social ladder when we talk of a culture of dependency?
Very cunning on the part of the government to pull out Bill 70 during collective bargaining negotiations with public sector employees, while the usual allies are busy protecting their own work conditions and environments.
But it is incoherent to do so only a few days after announcing consultations toward a new version of the action plan required by the Act to Combat Poverty and Social Exclusion, and in all likelihood written in a very different hand.
The government is pulling a fast one. It is backward, unlawful, pregnant with consequences, not to mention antidemocratic: it is simply astonishing that a change of this magnitude would go through mere amending provisions in a bill that we hadn’t seen coming.
Finally, from the point of view of those who will be asked to choose their own brand of misery in this new set of constraints, confining them—allegedly “for their own good”—to a path desired and managed by others, it is a gesture that deprives them of the right to lead the life one chooses.
Let’s get out of this mess.
Vivian Labrie is an associate-researcher with IRIS, a Montreal-based progressive think tank.