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Four out of five people in Quebec say social assistance should be fully conditional – Success elsewhere shows the way to social assistance reform

Montreal, January 25, 2007 – With Quebec reigning as North American social assistance champion, behind only Newfoundland and the District of Columbia, economist Norma Kozhaya of the Montreal Economic Institute says social assistance could be reformed in a way that would reduce dependency and poverty among persons fit for work. This change could draw insight from measures applied successfully in parts of Canada and in many U.S. states.

According to a Léger Marketing poll released today, 80% of people in Quebec would agree to having social assistance taken away from recipients who are fit for work and who refuse to take part in job preparation programs such as studies, training or community work.

Quebec compares poorly

Social assistance spending in 2005-06 reached $2.7 billion in Quebec with nearly 500,000 recipients, or 6.4% of the population. In the past dozen years, the number of social assistance recipients has fallen sharply across North America. What is most noticeable is the proportionately greater reductions among our neighbours to the south, where the number of recipients is down 73% from peaks in the mid-1990s, compared to 52% in Canada as a whole and just 39% in Quebec.

Winning reforms elsewhere

Changes instituted in the 1990s in several OECD countries aimed to improve work incentives and to facilitate gaining employment. The spirit of these reforms involved new conditions on assistance, with self-sufficiency as the ultimate goal.

Among the measures applied successfully in a number of U.S. states are:

  • time limits on benefits, generally with a lifetime limit of five years;
  • an obligation to work or to take part in training or community activities.

A recent study shows that 44% of the improvement in social assistance levels results from these reform measures rather than from other factors such as economic growth. The outcome has been income growth and reduced poverty among the families concerned.

In Canada, reforms have been less rigorous than in the United States. Only the governments of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia have adopted significant measures, making assistance fully conditional on seeking work or professional training, or setting time limits on benefits. Since the mid-1990s, the number of people on social assistance in Ontario and Alberta has gone down 56% to 77%.

Why is Quebec’s performance so much weaker?

In 1988 and 1998, Quebec undertook social assistance reforms following the North American trend but much less rigorously. And in 2005 this movement was set back with the introduction of a basic payment, or minimum level, that failed to require moving into the job market. Quebec has none of the more intensive measures adopted in Ontario, Alberta and, more recently, British Columbia.

Four out of five people in Quebec agree

A Léger Marketing poll conducted January 17 to 21 for the Montreal Economic Institute found that four people out of five (80%) in Quebec favour making social assistance fully conditional, with only 17% opposed. To be more precise, 54% agree completely and 26% agree somewhat “with the idea of taking social assistance away from a recipient who refuses to take part in a job preparation program such as studies, training or community work, as is the case in Ontario.”

The poll found that 44% of people in Quebec favour, and 52% oppose, the idea of limiting social assistance payments to a lifetime maximum of five years, as is the case in some U.S. states.

Titled Social assistance: what North American reforms can teach us, the Economic Note is available on the Institute’s Website.

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Information and interview requests: André Valiquette, Director of Communications, Montreal Economic Institute, Tel.: 514-273-0969 (office) / 514-574-0969 (cell) / E-mail: avaliquette@iedm.org

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