An alliance of social welfare advocates in Quebec are asking Quebec’s Labour, Employment and Social solidarity Minister Jean Boulet to reform the rules that make it harder for welfare recipients to get by.

Specifically, the group wants the social assistance system to stop penalizing claimants who are in the process of reintegrating into the labour market, with the first barrier to employment identified as the amount of social assistance cheques. “At $669 per month for a single person, the amount of the social assistance cheque is clearly insufficient to allow for the search for work,” says community organizer Sheetal Pathak. “A studio on the Island of Montreal costs an average of $649 a month (according to the CMHC). From the first of the month, people are in survival mode,” she says, adding job searches require a bus pass, phone, and decent clothing.

Another obstacle cited is the increased administrative burden when work income is reported.

People on social assistance are often working part-time, on-call, with a variable income and no guarantee of hours. “When I was on social assistance, I only managed to find part-time or contract jobs” recalled now-retired Debra Fogel. “The welfare office often asked me for proof that I was not working full-time, or that I was between contracts. It’s hard to prove—sometimes my employer wouldn’t give me a job statement because he still thought he’d keep me on call. It’s embarrassing to ask for letters from your employer when you’re always on call and you’re trying to maintain a good relationship.”

In addition to requests for documents, working on social assistance can lead to increased financial instability, with a single recipient permitted to keep only $200 of work earnings per month ($300 per couple). Any excess work income is cut dollar for dollar from the next cheque. However, when hours and incomes vary, social assistance will prefer to cut “too much” to prevent recipients from accumulating debts says Pathak. “The result is that many people find themselves in a situation where they cannot pay their rent because they have worked. It doesn’t make any sense.” Moreover, the amount has not been increased since 1999, today representing 16 hours of work per month at minimum wage, whereas 20 years ago, claimants could work 29 hours a month and keep their full salary.

Finally, the complex process of allocating social assistance discourages many from taking the risk of leaving the program and losing the little financial stability they have. The group wants the government to significantly increase social assistance, increase work gains allowed, reduce administrative requirements for working recipients, and improve access to social assistance for all.

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