Quebec’s pre-election budget had a clear and immediate benefit for 6.4 million people: an extra $500 in their pocket.
Anyone earning $100,000 or less after taxes — about 94% of taxpayers — qualifies for the money.
That’s $3.2 billion in total.
The payment, announced Tuesday in Premier Francois Legault’s final budget ahead of the provincial election scheduled for October, is intended to help offset the rising cost of living, with the inflation rate at its highest level in decades.
But many advocates and community groups say the money could have been put to better use either by putting more money in the hands of people with the least purchasing power or by investing more in programs and services that would be beneficial.
“It’s not a targeted response, and it’s not going to the people who need it most, so I don’t think it’s reducing inequality the way we would have hoped,” said Tasha Lackman, executive director of the Depot Community Food Center. in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce district of Montreal.
Adejoke Olaniyan, a food bank client and single mother of a 12-year-old boy, said the money would not be enough to help her make ends meet. She lives in a small apartment, but says that working part-time as a caregiver, it’s not easy to pay for things like her son’s school uniform.
“It’s going to be tough,” she said. “I’m not going to lie to you, I’m scared. I’m really, really scared, because as a single mom working as a caregiver, I don’t have enough hours.”
Call for a more targeted approach
In its fall economic update, the Coalition Avenir Québec government also gave residents extra cash to help stave off inflation, but took a more targeted approach.
The province gave $275 to single Quebecers earning less than $50,000 and $400 to couples with a combined income of just under $56,000.
The government also doubled its annual payment to low-income people over the age of 70, from $200 to $400.
Professor Stephen Gordon, an economist at Université Laval in Quebec, said a direct payment is a good way to help citizens, but the government should have taken a similar, targeted approach this time around.
Low-income people could then have gotten more help with the rising cost of groceries and gasoline, he said.
“If they’re going to cut the line to $100,000, there’s no reason they couldn’t have put that number much lower,” he said.
WATCH | Will a one-time $500 check give low-income Quebecers the relief they need?
Saray Ortiz Torres, a community organizer with Project Genesis, a Côte-des-Neiges-based nonprofit poverty relief agency, called the budget “very, very disappointing.” She hoped for greater investment in social and affordable housing.
The government has set aside $100 million to build 1,000 additional affordable housing units over five years across Quebec. It has also committed to building the 3,500 units already promised under the AccèsLogis program.
Torres said those commitments come nowhere near addressing the scale of the affordable housing shortage. There are more than 2,000 households on the waiting list for social housing in the borough of Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce alone, she said.
“A one-time payment of $500 is not the long-term solution to the problem people are facing right now,” she said.
“Everyone is affected by inflation”: the Minister of Finance
On Wednesday, Finance Minister Eric Girard defended the decision to make payment available to most Quebecers, saying “everyone is affected by inflation.”
In an interview on CBC Montreal DawnGirard said the slowdown in the supply chain due to the Omicron wave, coupled with the invasion of Ukraine, created a situation few could have foreseen.
“Because we have broader inflation, we offer broader application,” he said.
He said the government arrived at the figure by calculating the difference between projected inflation (which stands at 4.6% for this year) and the indexation of the tax system when applied to $25,000 of consumption – an estimate of a basic standard of living.
Whatever the math, the $500 payout is clearly designed to please voters ahead of the October election, said political scientist Professor Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.
Béland said the government appears to have taken a cautious overall approach, with major new investments in health and education, but said the opposition in Quebec’s National Assembly rightly criticized the money as an early election campaign.
“It is certainly less effective in fighting poverty,” he said. “At the same time, it is more effective from an electoral point of view.”