Quebec’s welfare system shows the limits of capitalist reformism

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“Social Solidarity” or social regulation? 

By Jason Johnson

In 2002 the Quebec National Assembly adopted the Act to Combat Poverty and Social Exclusion. This law obliges the Quebec government to establish a national strategy including actions that “must address both the causes and the consequences of poverty and social exclusion to ensure that all persons concerned may obtain the support and encouragement their situation requires and may, on their own, achieve self-sufficiency, and participate actively in the life and advancement of the community.”

The “national strategy” was to have reduced poverty levels in Quebec to the lowest in the industrialized world by 2013.

This, of course, did not happen.

Part of the problem is that the law is largely toothless and symbolic, with no sanctions provided. But there are wider factors that have contributed to the failure.

In reality, Quebec’s welfare system has little to do with empowering marginalized populations and eliminating poverty. It is, in fact, a system which strips the most vulnerable people of their dignity and right to privacy, while maintaining them in miserable conditions. The system also provides a powerful disciplinary tool to regulate the working-class. Quebec’s paternalistic welfare system constitutes an indirect subsidy to the capitalist class. On the one hand it maintains some semblance of social order by keeping the most desperate nominally fed and housed, though in substandard conditions. On the other hand, it serves as a warning to workers: “Behave and accept lower salaries and meager benefits, otherwise you will find yourself depending on alms.”

The “good” poor and the “bad” poor

Since the main goal of Quebec’s welfare system is to maintain a “reserve army” of available workers who are willing to accept low-paying jobs, beneficiaries are divided into workers prevented from working due to a disability and those who are not so prevented. The former group receive slightly more benefits – $1096 per month if the disability is permanent, and $880 if temporary.

At the end of 2017 the Liberal government of Philippe Couillard introduced a basic income pilot program for poor deemed “good” or “deserving” by capitalism (those unable to work due to disability). After five years of receiving disability payments, recipients would see their payments gradually increased to about $18,000 per year. According to the Institut de rechereche et d’informations socioéconomiques (IRIS), this is not enough for a single person to pay for their most basic needs in the Montreal region. But no one on disability is currently receiving $18,000 – none of the 85,000 “deserving poor” will receive this amount until 2023, when inflation will have made the cost of living even higher.

Furthermore, the “good poor” who would benefit from this meager basic income amount are a tiny minority – in April, over 287,000 adults and nearly 70,000 children in Quebec received welfare payments. For the “bad poor” – the overwhelming majority – the payments are just $690 a month, less than $8300 per year. This does not even cover housing costs in Quebec, where the average rent for a studio apartment is $770 per month.

The hunt for “welfare cheats”

To maintain the disciplinary function of the welfare system, it is not enough to dole out inadequate benefits; any poor person with the arrogance to try to improve their terrible conditions must be hunted down and punished.

In 2014, when the Couillard government was slashing budgets in a brutal austerity campaign, dozens of new investigators were hired to find cases of welfare “fraud.” The goal had nothing to do with saving money – the $86 million recovered from “welfare cheats” is a mere drop in the bucket of an overall $100 billion budget.

When a poor person is accused of welfare fraud, the government automatically deducts $112 from their monthly payments. This penalty is doubled for a second accusation. The law further allows the government to investigate up to 10 years back, resulting in huge penalties that recipients have no hope of paying off in their lifetime. Repayment claims of $100,000 are not rare, and the interest outstrips the monthly deduction so that the debt never goes down.

A report from Le Devoir indicated that least 80 percent of these “fraud” cases are in fact good faith errors. For example, a welfare recipient receiving financial help from their family is considered to have committed fraud and required to pay back their benefits.

People living with partners or roommates also face severe cutbacks and penalties. While a single person receives $690 per month, the total amount for two people living as a “couple” is $980. The law says that anyone who lives together in a “conjugal arrangement” are considered a couple, regardless of emotional or sexual involvements, so roommates who live too long together are considered a couple and forced to pay back years’ worth of welfare benefits.

Quebec also has the most restrictive residency requirements in North America for welfare payments. Anyone who leaves the province for more than 7 consecutive days in a calendar month is considered to have lost their residency status, and their benefits are cut off. This measure particularly punishes immigrants needing to attend funerals or other family events in their countries of origin.

Giving up all right to privacy

The investigators working for the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Solidarity have wider and more intrusive powers than the police. They can knock on neighbours’ doors to question them about the activities of welfare recipients, hoping to find proof of “conjugal life.” They can obtain bank records, phone records or other documents concerning welfare recipients, without any kind of warrant or judicial authorization.

Recipients can be interviewed by an investigator at any time, and face having their benefits cut off if they refuse or are unable to provide requested documents or sufficient answers. No aspect of their private life is beyond the reach of investigators.

It is a humiliating, degrading experience in which poor people are constantly made to feel like criminals.

COVID-19: nothing for the poor

While the costs of food and other basic necessities have increased dramatically during the COVID-19 health emergency, welfare recipients did not receive any aid whatsoever to get through this. The only “measure” taken by the Legault government was encouraging out of work Quebecers to volunteer at food banks.

Repeated calls from the Front commun des personnes assistées sociales du Québec and the Collectif pour un Québec sans pauvrété, for increased emergency assistance to help poor people through the health emergency, were completely ignored by the CAQ government.

“Social Solidarity” or social regulation?

The name of the ministry administering Quebec’s welfare system is downright Orwellian – “social solidarity” is the direct opposite of what it delivers. In fact, as in other capitalist countries, Quebec’s welfare system, aims to control the “dangerous classes” and maintain a state of constant precarity and uncertainty.

The combination of ridiculously low payments and the humiliation of being constantly investigated is an effective way to prevent low-wage workers from griping too much about their wages and conditions. Being bossed around in a minimum wage job may be preferable than being degraded and punished by “Social Solidarity” investigators. Welfare payments are not a “social safety net” in Quebec, they are an indirect wage subsidy to the capitalists, allowing them to keep workers in line and maximize exploitation.

Poverty and social exclusion are caused by capitalism – no wonder the lofty strategy of the 2002 law failed. While we must continue to fight for meaningful reforms now, the only “national strategy” that will abolish poverty and social exclusion is socialism. Socialism will not come from passing a law in a bourgeois parliament, but from the workers and oppressed people organizing themselves, exercising their immense collective power, and putting an end to capitalism.

[Photo: Front commun des personnes assistées sociales du Québec]

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