Emergency financial assistance from governments helped reduce the poverty rate in Quebec by nearly half during the first year of the pandemic.
The proportion of Quebecers living below the poverty line has fallen from 8.9% in 2019 to 4.8% in 2020, experts note based on statistics released in late March. All Canadian provinces saw marked improvement that year, but not on the scale of Quebec, which took Alberta’s title as the province with the lowest poverty rate.
This result is all the more remarkable as the economic crisis is simultaneously widening inequalities in market income, noted University of Montreal political scientist Alain Noël in an article in the review at the beginning of the week. Policy options† This means that these gains are attributable to the “exceptional redistribution effort” by governments.
These “temporary programs that are not very targeted” are particularly thought of, namely the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the Canadian Economic Recovery Benefit (PCRE) of the federal government. But probably not alone, as Quebec has outperformed the others, the expert noted.
In these statistics, the poverty rate corresponds to the proportion of the population living with a disposable income that is less than what is called the consumption basket measure, which corresponds to the cost of a basket of goods and services providing a level of modest basic livelihood . This poverty rate had been declining steadily in Quebec for at least five years, mainly due to the strong labor market and the introduction of increased Canadian child benefits. But the pace of this decline accelerated sharply with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I have never seen such a spectacular reduction in poverty! The question is whether we wouldn’t want to have more pandemics,” joked Michel Fréchet, sociology professor at Laval University and speaker at a symposium on the effects of the pandemic on poverty, organized in Montreal by the Quebec Observatory of Inequalities.
The profit has not been the same for all groups in society, the professor notes. While the poverty rate among households has more than halved (from 5.2% to 1.9%) and under 18s (from 6.3% to 2.3%), the progress among singles is proportionally twice as modest ( from 24.6% to 16.9%).
“All this can of course only be temporary. A flash in the pan that went out at the same time as the PCU and the PCRE. But will this success prompt governments to reconsider the generosity of current social safety net benefits? asks Michel Fréchet.
However, this poverty rate data doesn’t say anything about the effect the pandemic has had on the most humble of Quebecers, Quebec Observatory of Inequalities researcher Sandy Torres underlined at Friday’s symposium. “First, not everyone was eligible for the CERB,” she noted.
In a survey conducted last summer among the bottom 40%, two-thirds of them reported problems including mental health, personal finances or physical health. These problems were particularly common among 18- to 24-year-olds, LGBTQ+ communities, people with disabilities and minorities. A third said they live in isolation.
“We are not all equal in the face of isolation,” emphasized Friday Julie Nicolas, head of research at the Observatory of Autonomous Community Action. Blending in with your family home with a small yard is one thing. It’s quite different to be in a 1½ without a balcony. †
In the field, 9 out of 10 community organizations reported an increase in psychological and relationship support, and more than two-thirds noted an increase in basic needs (food, housing, etc.). The fact that governments, employers, schools and just about everyone have relied heavily on information technology during the pandemic has not helped families who lacked the right IT tools and services.
Lack of sympathy
It is not certain that the pandemic and the spectacular consequences of emergency financial aid programs will convince the entire population to do more from now on for the most disadvantaged, said Professor Normand Landry, holder of the research chair in media education and human rights at TÉLUQ University.
Before the pandemic, it was only politicians who received less sympathy from the general public than people on benefits, he found in his research. During COVID-19, welfare recipients who could work arrived at 11and and, according to Quebecers, last in the ranking of groups deserving government support, behind large corporations.