Participants voiced their concerns about the state of Montreal’s welfare system in a press release from Project Genesis. As it stands now, participants in the Aim for Employment Program (Programme objectif emploi) only receive $669 per month as an independent adult, and recipients may have their participation allowance of $165 taken back if they do not participate in job training, according to Le Devoir. Considering the cost of living in Montreal – a studio apartment on the island costs about $649 per month, according to Sheetal Pathak, a community organizer from Project Genesis quoted in the press release – these funds are insufficient for those seeking employment.
Montreal’s welfare system actively penalizes those looking for full-time jobs, as any income earned over the $200 maximum is cut from a recipient’s subsequent welfare check dollar-for-dollar. Because of this, many of those on welfare are reluctant to work more than a precarious part-time job. In fact, recipients can only work 16 hours per month on minimum wage – the equivalent of $200, per the press release – before having their welfare check cut. There is also a great deal of paperwork involved in instituting these restrictions: welfare offices often require proof that recipients aren’t working full-time, and one woman reported that she was fired from her job simply because her employer was irritated with the amount of paperwork that employing her entailed.
The statement from Project Genesis details her story: “He clearly told me: ‘You do your job well, we like you around here, but I can’t take care of the paperwork anymore, I’m going to have to let you go.’”(«Tu fais bien ton travail, on t’aime bien ici, mais je ne peux plus m’occuper de toute cette paperasse, je vais devoir te congédier.»)
Furthermore, the process of entering the welfare system requires extensive documentation, including a piece of identification, a birth certificate, documents that “determine your […] current income and income ending during the month of the application,” among other items. At the bottom of Appendix 2 in the application for social assistance benefits there is also a disclaimer, stating that “the Ministère reserves the right to ask you at any time to provide any documents and information required to verify your eligibility for last-resort financial assistance and determine the amount that could be granted to you. Failure to provide documents or information may lead to the refusal of your application.”
Due to how difficult it is to receive approval for welfare, many recipients are extremely hesitant to leave the welfare system. Indeed, accepting work of any kind is a risk for welfare recipients: many of them work part-time or contract-based jobs, so they may exceed their maximum of 16 hours one month, yet not have any work at all the following month. In such cases, they receive less than the $669 which they would otherwise be entitled to during their unemployed month. The press release details this further, stating that those who work varying hours and wages are particularly subject to the instability propagated by the welfare system, as “welfare will prefer to cut ‘too much’ to avoid recipient accumulating debt.”
Despite the inefficient and counterproductive nature of Quebec’s welfare system, the government has balked at reforming it. In fact, the basic benefit which an individual recipient can claim each month ($644) has not changed since 1999. As the press release states, due to inflation, this means that the number of hours a recipient can work each month has decreased from 29 to 16 over the past two decades. The mandatory work program, Objectif Emploi, has also faced controversy. The program offers a participation allowance of $165 to members on the condition that they meet with a social welfare agent every two weeks to search for employment opportunities, according to Le Devoir. However, Project Genesis states that it has done little to meet recipients’ financial needs.
“This program is based on the same logic which works against what we can see at the Genesis Project, where recipients of welfare tell us that they want to work, but the welfare system itself works creates obstacles and makes looking for employment difficult, or even impossible.” (« Ce programme est basé sur une logique qui va à l’encontre de ce que nous constatons au Projet Genèse, où les prestataires d’aide sociale nous disent qu’ils et elles veulent travailler mais que le système d’aide sociale lui-même leur impose des obstacles et rend la recherche d’emploi difficile, voir impossible. »
In response to these issues, the demonstration’s participants advocate for increasing the amount of welfare given per month, increasing the maximum number of hours recipients may work, lightening the administrative burdens imposed on recipients, and making welfare more accessible. Project Genesis asks Minister Boulet to “fight poverty, not the people living in it.”
This article was originally published in print on November 24, 2019 as part of the Labour, Body and Care joint issue.