Time for compassion and coherence in welfare

Par Beryl Wajsman le 16 février 2015

The Couillard administration is taking a look at revising welfare. It is in the context of the general austerity plan. It has been made clear that there will be some nominal cuts. This is the wrong policy. It punishes the vulnerable, perpetuates a system that does not work and cannot achieve any economic or social benefits. It is time for compassion and coherence in our welfare policies. 

Our social security system – pensions and welfare – have been compromised for generations by governments taking in what were in fact trust monies – deducted from all of us at source - and using them for general purposes. That was not the intention for the safety net President Franklin Roosevelt called “capitalism’s insurance.” There was a fiduciary obligation by the state. That trust has been violated time and again. It is the central reason for pensions and welfare being so pitifully low.

Welfare is a helping hand, not a handout. It is also not a privilege but a right. The freedom from fear of economic insecurity is one of the four freedoms set out in the 1930s. We determined as a society, that if someone stumbles on the road of life, we as a society help them get back on their feet. The reasoning was simple. Since each of us contributes in taxes to a system where none of us use all the programs we pay for, there is a social contract of shared wealth and shared help. That when it is the time for someone to receive help, they will get it. Not charity, but help. Here is where the welfare system fails. 

In order to receive welfare in Quebec you must strip yourself of all available assets. Then, you get only a maximum of $713 a month. And you are allowed to earn only $200 a month without losing your benefits.  This is absurd and Kafkaesque, It pushes people into the underground economy without a way out and leaves the burden solely on the backs of taxpayers. 

Welfare recipients generally fit a familiar profile. Employment lost, EI benefits ended, perhaps a health issue also arises. Options are limited. Welfare payments should be an add-on to what a citizen has in terms of income until they can begin earning a sustainable salary. For $713, you can barely meet the rent on a one bedroom apartment. Welfare should not strip citizens of dignity. 

What standard to use then? It is quite simple. The government’s own. Both Quebec and Ottawa agree that poverty income levels range from $19,000 for a single individual rising to $35,000 for a household of four. Welfare payments should at least allow for someone to subsist above poverty.

We are not suggesting that welfare payments cover that entire amount, unless a person is physically incapable of working. What we are suggesting is that welfare payments cover the difference between what a person can earn and the poverty line. And they should stay in place until a recipient finds a position that gives them a living wage. Only by encouraging work, not penalizing it as we do now, can we help people end their dependence on welfare.

In order to make this succeed there must be a monitoring system put in place. Currently, it is very easy to get welfare and only once a year are recipients asked if they have looked for work. That must be changed. The bureaucrats who administer our system should check with recipients at least every four months to see to their financial and employment needs.

A third necessary reform, in addition to raising welfare payments and allowing recipients to work with the poverty line as a cap, is help with retraining. Currently, if a recipient wants to enter a job training program they could lose all benefits if the program has not been approved by the government. Pointe Claire’s Annick Boivin just got caught in this trap. The  mother of two, forced on welfare by health problems, had registered to train as a nurses’ aide. It was a six month course and she was assured of employment at the end. She was not asking the government to pay for this. Annick had properly informed welfare bureaucrats of this opportunity. She had been encouraged to enroll by people at the Lakeshore General. But because the department failed to respond in time, she was told that she would lose her benefits if she enrolled because it had not been determined whether this kind of job training fit her “profile.” One would think that it does not take a great deal of investigation to say yes to Annick’s request.

Lest anyone think that the suggestions expressed here are “radical” they should think again. Over the decades they have been proposed and supported first by Prof. Milton Friedman, the father of free market economics, President Richard Nixon, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the government of Canada which instituted these reforms in what has come to be known as the Dauphin experiment. The time for this has come.

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