The fight against poverty: A model law

January 22, 2003

Camil Bouchard
GRAVE-Ardec
Department of Psychology
University of Quebec in Montreal

Marie-France Raynault
Montreal Center Public Health Direction

The Quebec government finally adopted, after a long process initiated by the Quebec Federation of Women during the March of Bread and Roses in June 1995 , a Law to Fight Poverty and Social Exclusion (Law 112). With this Law, Quebec recognizes that poverty is a threat to the rights and freedoms of its citizens, that in this respect the government must intervene to protect the dignity and rights of persons, and that the fight against poverty represents a "national imperative" (Preamble). This Law is remarkably similar to the approach adopted by the European Union whose member countries have adopted explicit laws or plans of action and who consider, as expressed in the preamble of Law 112, that the economic development of a society greatly benefits from social development and the social cohesion it entails. This Law makes of Quebec a reference for countries that choose, in a space of market globalization, to follow a model of protection and development of their human and social capital. Quebec’s wager is that the reduction of social inequalities will foster the peace, justice and social equity it needs for its economic and social development.

In several ways, Law 112 is inspired by provisions to be found in European models, notably in the area of the participation of citizens and of those primarily concerned: persons threatened by poverty and vulnerable groups. In response to the very many opinions expressed during the hearings of the Parliamentary Commission, the government has made lots of room for citizen participation and the involvement of local and regional bodies. The Law also opens wide the door to public deliberations. It creates a Consultative Committee responsible for advising the government, in particular concerning the delicate issue of determining subsistence revenue and a minimum welfare allowance. People representing the interests of the poorest people constitute an important portion of the members of this Committee. The reports of this Committee are public and are presented according to a public calendar. The Law also creates an Observatory whose role in part will be to witness the effects of the fight against poverty and exclusion, and to inform the government and the public. In that, the government derogates (at last) from it habit of allowing its administrative machine to inform it (too) discreetly of the implementation of laws and their effects. Public deliberation fed by the opinions of the Observatory and the Consultative Committee will markedly strengthen the democratic space of Quebec.

Compared to the French Law of Orientation Relating to the Fight against Exclusion adopted in 1997, the Quebec law targets more specifically the very reduction of inequalities and poverty rather than their effects. While a large part of the provisions of the French law are geared to the alleviation of the effects of poverty (social housing, access to services and care, protection of the rights and the dignity of the excluded), nearly 75% of the provisions of the Quebec law directly undertake a reduction of poverty (training, revenue increases, access to jobs, quality of jobs, salaries and working conditions). In that sense, Law 112, in intentions and it is known provisions, is closer to the model of the northern countries than to the model of Mediterranean countries. It intervenes on the causes of poverty rather than its effects. At the same time, regarding consequences, the government’s intentions address traditional demands concerning the protection of the right to housing, to leisure activities, to sports, to the integration and the social participation of the poorest. These are goals that are neither negligible nor secondary.

The Collective for a Law to Eliminate Poverty conceived and demanded this law and, before the Parliamentary Commission, it asked that there be an impact clause that would force ministers to ponder the effects of new laws and regulations on the situation of the poor and on the goals of reducing poverty. The Collective, studious, perseverant, democratic and vigilant, won its case. The amended law meets its wishes. Though the impact clause is timid (it is up to the ministers, not to an independent body, to estimate the effects of the law), it ensures a minimum degree of coherence in governmental action and adds another element of protection for the poor.

This law has much merit. But it also has a certain number of weaknesses. For instance, it does not hail in a deep and desirable change that would have the help offered citizens go from a last recourse approach to a frank approach of maintenance of decent revenue and the prevention of economic distress. The law is ambivalent in this respect. It has elements that reveal the presence of the two approaches. Thus, help continues to be offered so as to cover essential needs for people on welfare (the logic of the last recourse) and, simultaneously, there is a glimpse of a solidarity revenue that could compensate insufficient revenues of workers (the logic of revenue support). In other words, the law perpetuates this dichotomy between help offered people who work and people who are removed from the labor market. The two systems continue to exist: employment insurance and employment assistance. The Quebec government is up against the impossibility to move more coherently since it does not control the employment insurance regime.

Once amended, Law 112 remains vague about the concrete goals targeted by the government. It affirms that within ten years, Quebec should find itself "among the industrial countries who have the least poor people" (no figures are set), without specifying if we are to join the 5 or the 20 first. Reductions in the gaps between the rich and the poor are not pinpointed, no more than a goal that would not seek only to reduce the numbers of the poor (this number is not set) but would also reduce the severity of their poverty. The government’s plan of action must specify goals, the criteria of their achievement and a specific calendar, without which the effectiveness of the law will be considerably weakened.

Besides, the law, in its new version, maintains an opting-out formula for the government. Article 15 stipulates indeed that "the conditions, modalities and implementation calendars... are determined while taking into account other national priorities." This provision is too handy for a government, which, for instance, would decide that debt erasure comes before an increase in the revenues of the poor. It would have been preferable to associate the government’s process with the achievement of targeted goals, rather than open the door to an eventual, all too easy retreat. The government’s taking sides for families and young children which this law once more witnesses must not rest indecisively on timidity when statistics constantly remind us of how urgent it is to act in their favor and for a long time.

This urgency to act must appear from now on in a plan of action, which the law forces the government to present within 60 days. This plan will clearly show where the government stands in its will to change things. Meanwhile, Quebec society can celebrate a unique collective effort of solidarity and social justice.

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