Quebec anti-poverty group worried about plan that penalizes new welfare seekers

A Quebec anti-poverty group is worried about a provincial program that imposes financial penalties on welfare seekers who fail to take part.

As of April 1, first-time seekers can lose up to $224 of their $650 monthly sum if they do not intensively search for work, undergo job training and develop social skills.

Serge Petitclerc, a spokesman for a coalition of 30 Quebec organizations, says helping people find work is a good idea but they should not be forced to participate and face sanctions.

"Threatening people is never a good strategy,'' he said in an interview from Quebec City on Monday.

Petitclerc said he's concerned people won't be able to participate because they may be illiterate or have comprehension or mental health issues.

"It's not by imposing measures that we help these people,'' he said. 

"It's more by working with community groups and social services that we reach these people.''

He said current welfare payments don't allow people to live comfortably and that cutting payments will just make the situation worse.

"An adult who lives alone receives $648 and half of that covers the minimum necessary to cover basic essentials,'' Petitclerc noted.

"By cutting up to $224, the maximum that can be cut, a person will end up with an amount of $424 (and) with that, he wouldn't even be able to pay the rent.''

Petitclerc said about 80,000 Quebecers go on welfare every year and "just as many, or even more, are leaving it''.

He called it ``ridiculous and contradictory'' for the province to impose the "Objectif emploi'' program now when the number of people receiving welfare is at its lowest level in 20 years.

Quebec Employment Minister Francois Blais outlined the program's regulations last June.

First-time welfare seekers are offered an additional monthly incentive that could go as high as $260 if they join the program, but there are some conditions.

First, they have to agree to take part in an evaluation session. Then they have to choose one of three 12-month courses that are being offered.

The courses involve either: studying to obtain a professional qualification; researching how to find work; or developing social skills for those who are not ready to return to work or study because of various problems, such as drug abuse.

Blais has said the goal of the penalties is not to punish people or to save money.

"On the contrary, the idea is that when they get welfare for the first time, it's the best time to give them the training they may not have had,'' he stressed.