Experts say welfare needs a boost, hold off on minimum wage increase

Quebec should improve welfare and significantly increase the work premium for low-income earners if it won’t provide a guaranteed minimum revenue, says a committee of experts who studied the issue.

The committee, which was set up by the provincial government in June 2016, published a detailed report containing 23 recommendations on Monday. The report is to lay the foundation of the government’s policy to fight poverty and social exclusion, expected this fall.

While the committee finds that single people and couples without children in Quebec are little or poorly protected, it doesn’t go as far as recommending a guaranteed minimum revenue, saying that it examined the experiences of 26 countries.

No jurisdiction has applied a universal allocation in its complete form because it causes problems with equity, inducement to work and social acceptance, said the committee’s chairperson, Dorothée Boccanfuso. Boccanfuso is professor in the economics department of Université de Sherbrooke. 

“In simulations that we did for Quebec, we realized that there were losers. And even if we made simulations so that there were no losers, we realized that the least needy would benefit the most from the measure,” she said at a press conference.

It was also a matter of “deficiency” of the Quebec government’s capacity to pay, she said.

Proponents of the guaranteed minimum revenue, such as the government of Ontario, which recently launched a pilot project, say that it “supplements” the revenue of individuals in a way that responds to their essential needs. The measure, which would replace welfare, would guarantee income security to a growing number of people who are filling precarious and part-time jobs.

The committee of experts proposes instead to improve the existing system of supporting income.

People who live alone and couples without children “have benefitted less from reforms in recent years. It’s a lot of aid to families that was at issue,” Boccanfuso said. That’s why she recommends increasing welfare by $472 a year for a single person and by $311 for a couple without children.

The measure, which would cost $86.4 million, aims to ensure that a person’s income corresponds to 55 per cent of the so-called Market Basket Measure, based on the cost of a specified basket of goods and services representing a modest, basic standard of living. Currently, it’s 52 per cent for a single person, or $9,192 per year. 

As well, the committee suggests, an automatic payment of certain tax credits, payment of different types of support with a single cheque, supplementary coverage for people facing, “situations of transition” who don’t qualify for welfare, the creation of a temporary aid program, the creation of a personal account for transition and training.

The measures would help the government reach those who don’t claim welfare and other measures to which they’re entitled, either because the process is too long and complicated or because they’re afraid of prejudice, the experts said.

To “better compensate” those who get off welfare to reintegrate into the workforce, the committee recommends a “major increase” of $1 billion per year of the work premium provided to low-income earners.

The committee did not weigh an increase of the minimum wage in Quebec, nor did it consider the possibility of making any of the measures it proposes retroactive.

Reacting to the report on Monday, the Parti Québécois denounced a “lack of ambition” on the part of the government in the fight against poverty.

The party believes the bar of 55 per cent of the Market Basket Measure, an increase of only three percentage points, “is clearly inadequate,” said PQ employment and poverty critic Harold LeBel.

The Collectif pour un Québec sans pauvreté said it’s regrettable that overall, “the recommendations are incompatible with the government’s promise to deliver a third anti-poverty plan that’s ambitious.”

The collective has been campaigning for the government to, among other things: provide a minimum income of at least $17,716 per year for a single person and increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

François Blais, the provincial minister for employment and social solidarity, was for a long time favorable to instituting a guaranteed minimum income in Quebec when he was a political philosophy professor at Université Laval.