POOR MAN (sadly): I spend nearly all my income on food.
RICH MAN (virtuously): That’s your problem. I spend only 5% of my income on food.

Apologies to Idries Shah, whom I’ve paraphrased, but this snippet underlines what should be, and isn’t always, obvious. Namely, that it is easy to be smug when you have more than a bare-subsistence income.

Quebec’s Parti Quebecois government, to their eternal shame, has joined the ranks of the ignorant, self-satisfied and short-sighted.

With the ostensible goal of “encouraging people to re-enter the workforce,” they will be reducing the welfare benefit by $129.00 per month as of June 2013 for women with children under 5 years old, people over 55, and some who are in substance-abuse rehabilitation programmes. This means an applicant for welfare after that date will receive the princely sum of $604.00 per month–which is already well below the cost of rent, heat and food–unless they qualify for “help reintegrating into the workforce,” otherwise known as close supervision, threats of losing benefits, and an assortment of mostly-useless training for full-time jobs that don’t exist.

Those who receive that amount already rely on food banks and other community services to make ends meet, or struggle to earn a few dollars on the side to avoid eviction. Every year, hundreds of these people have their electricity cut off for inability to pay their bills, a very serious matter where most heating is electric in a climate where that is cold from October to May, even if the law calls for humanitarian reconnection for the worst part of the winter. Every year, hundreds more are evicted and end up homeless–on the streets and in the crowded shelters if they do not have friends or family who can take them in. (And note that, if they do, their welfare will be reduced accordingly.)

The cost of a heated studio apartment in a badly-maintained building in a low-rent neighbourhood in Montreal is about $500/month; an UNheated one-bedroom apartment not too far from schools and services is close to $600.00. By a convenient fiction, the welfare calculation assumes housing costs of ten years ago. The only ways to obtain those rents are a) getting into subsidized housing (there’s a multi-year waiting list for most since too few were ever built), or b) renting a room in one of the slum rooming houses (fast disappearing in the condo frenzy) or shared “student” apartments…which will hardly welcome a mother with small children or an older person.

Let’s admit, then, that the present level of welfare benefit is something less than lavish. As a freelancer who has seen hard times, I know what it is to try to make ends meet on that kind of income. One’s employability is not enhanced by being unable to afford a telephone, bus tickets or a day at the laundromat.

As a vegetarian and an able cook, I could feed myself more-or-less on $5.00 a week–with a heavy emphasis on rice, beans, pasta, onions and cabbage–but running out of cooking oil or soap was a real inconvenience, even if the dollar store helped. During the worst times, I had to resort to the local food bank…and discovered to my horror what they were receiving in the way of donations. When I thought about it before, I little thought “non-perishables” from supermarkets would mean expired “fruit drinks,” stale chips, dented unlabelled cans, and various things long past their “best before” dates. It’s pathetic how thrilled I was when my bag included undamaged macaroni and unexpired tomato paste. It’s even more pathetic to know how many of my neighbours were relying on these donations to feed their children through the week before the welfare cheque.

Let none of you have any illusion that the cheque covers an adequate and healthy diet for most of its recipients. Even the lucky ones who know how to stretch a dollar and turn the wilted “special” produce into nourishing soups are going to be protein-starved and vitamin-deficient if they try to keep their children in bread and milk, never mind shoes.

Also, it’s a fact of modern times that many welfare recipients have never learned how: they are North Americans brought up on processed and “fast” food, and brainwashed by advertising to believe that sugary Krunchybits and cheap, greasy burgers are nutritious. It’s no wonder their children are pale, weak and inattentive in class unless the charitable Breakfast Clubs and lunch programmes come to the rescue. And, without money for transportation, a sitter or even minimal costs, it’s the rare parent who participates in a community kitchen where they can learn to make the most of what is cheap and available.

Anyway, the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet are simply out of reach: fresh fruit, green vegetables, olive oil, fish and cheese seem far too expensive when your budget is $25 per person per month. It can seem more bearable somehow to live on macaroni and cheese and ramen noodles from the dollar store most of the time so as to afford an occasional “blow-out” at Tim’s or McDo.

Of course, the government ministers and the better-off classes have no idea what that’s like. They don’t know or care how much it really costs to keep even a substandard roof overhead. They don’t acknowledge that there is enough structural unemployment (and has been for decades) that the wages of low-income workers have been falling in real terms while the cost of the basics (other than cars, electronics, and such luxuries) has been rising rapidly, such that a full-time worker on the minimum wage falls below the poverty line and even lower-middleclass people with better incomes are struggling with bigger bills and no job security.

When faced with the fact of intractable poverty–largely due to automation, downsizing and offshoring of jobs–they find it easier to blame the victims for taking themselves out of the workforce and to inflict further pain on them as undeserving of compassion than to admit that we, as a society, created the problem when we decided that the well-heeled should have bigger incomes and the already-poor smaller, more precarious ones. They talk endlessly about welfare fraud (which exists but involves the same small percentage of people as other forms of crime) and are scandalized that some welfare recipients may splurge on a beer to forget their troubles ahile or a lottery ticket in the vain hope of getting out of poverty.

That is the mentality which allowed a previous federal government to siphon off the surplus in Unemployment Insurance–money contributed by employers and employees themselves–to use it for other purposes than helping the unemployed who had paid in. That is the mentality of the current federal government, which was not content that only 40% of the unemployed would get benefits at all and decided to use “Employment Insurance” as a tool to drive low-end wages down further and force people in seasonal industries (however important they are to the overall economy of the country) out of their homes and onto provincial social assistance instead of giving them the EI they contributed to.

And, yes, that is the lamentable mentality of the Conservative converts in today’s Parti Quebecois, which responds to the need for social justice with strong words to the feds on the injustice of the EI “reform” but prompts its (ironically-named) Minister of Social Solidarity to implement (on the quiet, in the official Gazette with no public discussion) measures to punish the mothers of small children and the older workers nobody wants to hire with the likelihood of starving or freezing by branding them as lazy parasites on their taxpaying “betters.”

Rene Levesque must be spinning in his grave. Given the precarity of life as an aging freelancer with mobility problems, it seems likely I’ll be spinning in mine before Quebec gets a government worthy of the name.

We have three parties ruled by the self-satisfied “moralists” who feed lavishly at the public trough and think it only right to inflict hunger and pain on the people who have nothing to donate to campaigns. We have one party with a conscience, Quebec Solidaire, which has little chance of winning more than a seat or two unless we get true proportional representation…which will never happen under any of the other three.

Maybe when Madame Justice Charbonneau has finished exposing political corruption in construction, we should ask her to look into the deeper corruption which is tearing Quebec apart?

Those who have too little to put into their cooking pots may well be out beating them in the streets before June. If so, I’ll be the old bat with the cane, struggling to keep up with them.

Advertisements