Surviving as Work : The realities of life on welfare in Quebec

"No matter what, we're gonna fight...even if it's until my last breath,"  Diane Davies, 61."No matter what, we're gonna fight...even if it's until my last breath," Diane Davies, 61.

by Aaron Lakoff

It is by now slowly sinking in to many people in Quebec that this province is in a major swing towards the right, and the last provincial elections of March 2007 were certainly an indicator of this. The Liberals emerged victorious again (yet this time with a minority government at the National Assembly), and the right-wing Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ) came swiftly up from behind to form the official opposition. And while people across the province from student, labour, and environmental movements are bracing themselves for the changes yet to come, those left out in the cold and perhaps the most vulnerable are also those receiving the « last recourse » of aid – welfare recipients.

Shortly after being sworn in to a high-profile cabinet position in the National Assembly as the new Minister of Employment Social Solidarity, Sam Hamad found himself with his foot in his mouth. He was quoted across the media in Quebec saying that « Welfare recipients who aren’t on disability payments are not interested in going to work now », and continued to say that « they have everything; dental care, medications, daycare… ». To make matters worse, he used the term « BS » in French to describe welfare recipients, which has about the same connotation as « welfare bum ». Many welfare-rights groups, thoughroughly angered by Hamad’s comments, announced that there would be no dialogue with him until he retracted his statements. Hamad did publicly apologize the next day, but the cat was out of the bag, and the scars are still there.

A little note about the lives of people on welfare, to which Hamad seems to be completely oblivious. Quebec has 500 000 welfare recipients.. Of these people, 263 000 who are catagorized by the system as « able to work » get a welfare check of $572 per month. Considering that the average rent for a 1 bedroom apartment in Montreal is $579 per month, a monthly metro pass is $65, food is at least $100 per month, getting by on a welfare cheque is pretty much impossible.

So do welfare recipients really have « everything »? No, and far from it. In fact, for many in the province, being on welfare can be more accurately characterized as a constant struggle, or as one member of the Organisation Populaire des Droits Sociaux puts it, « every day of our lives is dedicated to surviving”.

With rents, public transportation, and the general cost of living on the rise, one would at least think that the welfare rates would rise as well, but think again. The Quebec government has neglected to fully index the welfare rates to the cost of living for the past decade now, hence reducing the purchasing power of recipients year by year. It has been estimated that if welfare rates had been indexed over the last decade to meet the cost of living, the rate for a single person would be closer to $850 per month.

The notion that welfare recipients are not interested in working is a sweeping generalization, and very far from most people’s lived realities. For many people, just the struggle of trying to survive on a welfare cheque is work enough. Diane Davies, a 61-year old Montrealer and anti-poverty activist, has been on welfare since 1972. She tried for years handing out C.V’s for different job openings in Laval and Montreal, but to no avail. “Who wants to hire me at my age, with not too many skills?” she asks, with little hope of returning to the job market at this point in her life.

Furthermore, the perseption of the job market being prosperous is not always accurate. Georges (who wouldn’t give his full name for fear of reprocussions from the welfare office) sees things differently. “The fact is that the job market, in my opinion, is unpredictable, small, and dangerous.” In the mid-1990’s, he had an accident which has prevented him from working since. “Mr. Hamad wanted to laugh at us, and he succeeded because most people are uninformed about the situation of welfare.”

And then this April, to add insult to injury, an interesting news story broke in the province. Clairandrée Cauchy wrote an article in Le Devoir on April 18, documenting several of welfare recipients who had their checks cut because their agents found out that they were receiving financial help from their friends. In one particularly shocking case in the article, a man on “temporary constraints to work” welfare received a cut on his check because his mother was buying him $35 worth of groceries every 2 weeks.

Claude Morin, spokesperson for the Ministry of Employment, laid out the distinction between help received by welfare recipients from friends, and help received from charity organizations such as food banks or shelters. While groceries and other necessities given by friends are considered income, and hence illegal, the same things given by charity organizations are considered “punctual aid”, and therefore legal.

This is how the control over people’s poverty is enforced by our welfare system. Keep people’s checks at starvation levels, make people cry out for mercy, and then channel all last recourse aid through government sanctioned charity organizations. For those who would prefer to receive help from their families and friends to eat, rather than line-up in soup kitchens, they are slapped firmly on the hand.

Hamad proposed changes to the regulations of the welfare law which came into effect on September 1st in order to allow for in-kind donations to be given to recipients from their friends and families. But the Front Commun des Personnes Assistées Sociales du Québec (FPASQ), a coalition of 30 welfare-rights organizations in Quebec, insists that this isn’t enough. In a document submitted to the Ministry of Employment on July 20th, they urge that donations should be receivable in-kind, or in cash.

Such minute changes to the welfare law such as those proposed by the FCPASQ would no doubt have positive impacts on the lives of recipients, but they are also just a drop in the bucket of a larger struggle to raise the welfare rates to a survivable amount. There is a long road ahead, and many people on welfare are bracing themselves to travel it. “Look at how long we suffered without access to free medication…” says Diane Davies. “Right now we’re getting free medication. Next time it might be something else, and I don’t know what, but no matter what it is, we’re gonna fight. That’s all I know how to do now. And fight I’ll do, even if it’s until my last breath.”