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MONTREAL — For the first time in many years, Monique Toutant thinks she might be able to buy herself some better groceries and a few new clothes.
As a longtime social assistance recipient, the 62-year-old Quebec City resident is used to pinching pennies, buying the strict minimum at the grocery store and saving for months for every purchase. She calls it “everyday stress.”
“Will I have enough money to get through the month? Will I have enough money to eat well? Will I have enough money because I have a doctor’s appointment in two days and I have to pay a bus ticket?” she said in a phone interview.
Toutant, who can’t work because of acute rheumatoid arthritis that prevents her from sitting or standing for long periods, is facing a little less hardship after her monthly cheque rose by more than $300 to about $1,548 at the beginning of January with the launch of the Quebec government’s basic income program.
The program, aimed at 84,000 Quebecers with a “severely limited capacity for employment” such as a chronic illness or mental health condition, will provide an increase of more than 28 per cent for a single person, the government says. Just as importantly, they will also have the ability to earn about $14,500 a year in wages — up from $200 a month — and have up to $20,000 in savings, all without losing benefits. They will also be able to live with a partner who earns a small paycheque without seeing their benefits clawed back.
The program, which will cost about $1.5 billion a year, allows recipients “to benefit from one of the highest disposable incomes for people on social assistance in Canada,” the province’s Labour and Social Solidarity Department said in an email.
Anti-poverty activists are praising the program as a good step toward helping people meet their basic needs, but say strict eligibility criteria exclude many of the province’s lowest-income residents.
Jean Lalande, a spokesman for a welfare rights committee in Montreal’s Pointe-St-Charles, said the program addresses some of the problems with traditional welfare, which discourages people from taking steps to improve their situations by cutting benefits as soon as someone tries to get a job or save money.
However, he believes it should be offered to all of those on social assistance, including those earning the minimum welfare amount of $770 per month, who sometimes spend 80 or 90 per cent of their income on rent.
Lalande, as well as Serge Petitclerc of the Collectif pour un Quebec sans pauvrete, said the rules for admission to social assistance are already very restrictive, and it can take years to have people’s health conditions formally recognized. By the time people are approved for higher benefits, their physical and mental health is likely to have further declined due to the effects of extreme poverty, they said.
Even Quebecers who are recognized as having a severely limited work capacity aren’t included unless they have been in that situation for five and a half of the last six years.
Sylvain Caron, 64, has serious mobility issues that the government has acknowledged prevent him from working. But because the severity of his condition has only been recognized for two and a half years, he is only eligible for a program that pays about $300 a month less than basic income.
Caron, who lives in Rawdon, north of Montreal, and works with Petitclerc’s group, said the extra money from the new program might have allowed him to pay an expensive car bill. Instead, he had to sell the vehicle and rely on adapted transit — resulting in a “loss of autonomy” in his rural area.
William Moore, 58, is also excluded. The Montreal man has been unable to work since 2013, when his body broke down after a life of physical labour jobs, resulting in back and knee problems.
Despite having been out of work for 10 years and being convinced that another job will kill him, his work constraints are considered “temporary,” meaning he receives about $930 a month. Moore, who volunteers with anti-poverty groups, believes all poor people should get enough money to meet their basic needs.
“It would change everybody’s life for the better, because a lot of people are suffering and can’t survive,” he said.
The Quebec government, for now, doesn’t appear to be considering expanding eligibility. It notes there are other programs in place to help those living in poverty who aren’t eligible for basic income, including some to help people re-enter the workplace.
“The most sustainable way out of poverty is through employment,” the Labour department said.
Francois Blais, a former cabinet minister who helped draft the basic income project under the previous Liberal government, said it was always a “targeted” measure to help a group that disproportionately lives in poverty and is unlikely to be able to return to the job market.
While he respects the arguments for expanding the program to all social assistance recipients, he says it would be hard to do without bringing in a wider basic income program that would also apply to low-income working people.
Blais, now a professor at Universite Laval, is a proponent of such a change, which he says could eventually come through boosting refundable tax credits for low-income people. For now, the basic income program is a “good start,” he said.