The Quebec Liberals vs. the 99%

The province borrows a billion to bail out Bombardier while penny-pinching teachers, health workers and now the poorest of the poor.

Couillard with Bombardier's Daniel Johnson

Premier Philippe Couillard with Bombardier’s Daniel Johnson

Don’t kick a man when he’s down. Unless it’s the only way to keep him there.

That seems to be the philosophy behind the Liberal government’s continued attack on the bottom of the 99 per cent. While the Philippe Couillard government was racing to the bank to borrow $1.3-billion to “invest” with their friends at struggling Bombardier Aerospace last week, it was simultaneously plotting to save $50-million a year by discouraging the poorest of the poor from applying for the ridiculous pittance we commonly call welfare.

Sam Hamad — who bears the onerous Orwellian title of Minister of Labour, Employment and Social Solidarity — told reporters Tuesday that Quebec will cut in half the benefits of new welfare applicants if they don’t sign up for employment programs or agree to take a job offer even if it means moving halfway across the province.

So much for Social Solidarity.

The threatened cut would see a monthly cheque for a single person go to about $300.

The social assistance program is supposed to be a measure of “last resort” for people who have no other source of income, and the government has historically ensured it stays that way by making it as unattractive as possible.  People who apply for welfare are subjected to invasive scrutiny in exchange for $20 a day, most of which goes to pay rent. If it’s difficult to live on that pittance, then it’s obviously impossible to live on a cheque half that size. Quebec might as well eliminate the payments altogether, the true objective behind the reform, which the government projects will discourage 85 per cent of 17,000 first-time applicants a year from filling in the form.


People who are frantic enough to apply for social assistance don’t magically disappear when they are bumped from the welfare rolls. Their desperation drives them to other solutions, including prostitution and theft. When we take away a “last resort,” we provoke homelessness, violence, suicide, malnutrition, mental illness and a host of other ills.

As the government itself notes, 40 per cent of new recipients themselves grew up in welfare households. Hamad is exploiting this fact to argue that he’s just trying to break the cycle of dependence by forcing this second generation to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. But the cycle began long before the next generation applied for a cheque, it began when they grew up in a hardscrabble household, went to school hungry wearing donated clothing, struggling with homework under the frustrated gaze of parents who often have their own problems of literacy and poor education. It was reinforced as they grew up in impoverished neighbourhoods and went to inner-city schools, where middle-class notions of the importance of a good education were quickly suffocated along with pipe dreams of one day going to college.

Many of those who apply for welfare don’t see opportunity when you wave a training brochure in their face. If they’ve even capable of reading it, they will often see just another humiliation lying in wait after a lifetime of academic struggle or failure.

Breaking the cycle has to start when the children are young, not when they’re old enough to have children of their own. The U.S. has had some success with so-called “two-generation” programs that simultaneously boost educational opportunities for both parents and children, for example.

Of course, the truth is that helping families is the farthest thing from Hamad’s mind in proposing the welfare reform. The sole motivation is to cut expenditures as part of the government’s austerity agenda. Couillard wants to adopt a zero-deficit budget, one where the province can stop borrowing money to pay teachers or health professionals.

Nope, if we’re going to borrow money, it’s going to bail out our jet-set friends at Bombardier, not to pay those losers who spend their time teaching our kids and caring for the ill and the underprivileged. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.