The Quebec government is refusing to yield to pressure from women's groups and anti-poverty advocates to scrap a proposal to reduce welfare payments to young couples and older workers.
The proposed cuts would reduce benefits by $129 a month to welfare recipients aged between 55 and 58 years old who receive a supplement to compensate for difficulties finding new employment. Because women at that age often face discrimination in the job market, the measure is a blow to one of the most vulnerable groups in society, a coalition of women's rights groups told Premier Pauline Marois on Thursday.
The other proposed change would cut benefits to one of the partners in a couple if both receive welfare and have pre-school age children.
The proposal would cut payments to these two groups of workers if they refuse to follow a job training program. Should they agree, their supplement would be increased to $195 a month.
"As far as I'm concerned, being aged 55 is not a constraint to finding a job, and having a young child is not a constraint to finding a job. The constraint is elsewhere, it is from the time spent unemployed and the time spent on welfare," Labour Minister Agnes Maltais, who is also responsible for the Status of Women, said in a news conference.
Members of the coalition said that is not what they were told when they met Ms. Maltais and Ms. Marois earlier in the day.
"I am perplexed. Ms. Maltais recognized that there were fragile groups within that age bracket," Alexa Conradi, president of the Quebec Federation of Women, said on her website.
Ms. Conradi headed a delegation of women representing mainly labour organizations and women's rights groups demanding that the government re-evaluate its decision to cut benefits.
"Many women face discrimination in the job market. When you are 57 or 58 years old and you seek a job in certain workplaces, generally, there is discrimination towards older female workers," Ms. Conradi said at an earlier news conference. "And the changes may also affect single-mother welfare recipients who decide to live with a partner and who may not equally share the responsibilities towards the children. The proposed rules certainly worry us."
By pushing ahead with its decision to eliminate the province's deficit by the end of 2013-2014, the government is bowing to pressure from the financial community at the expense of social programs, Ms. Conradi said.
"The problem we have is that, when they tell us that the zero-deficit policy is what determines the government's priorities, that is when we discover that there is no money to invest in our demands. This way of thinking needs to be called into question," Ms. Conradi said.
She was supported by an anti-poverty coalition and an advocacy group representing the rights of welfare recipients, which met with Ms. Maltais later in the day to demand the government review the cutbacks.
"All the government is doing is subsidizing part of its job training program through cuts in welfare payments. Those with neither the adequate skills nor abilities to be trained will fall through the cracks," said Amélie Châteauneuf, spokesperson for an anti-poverty coalition.
Ms. Maltais insisted she is not out to get welfare recipients, but rather to help them back into the job market. For the first time, she said, government officials will meet individually with each welfare recipient from the two categories facing cutbacks to offer assistance. But Ms. Maltais recognized that this will require a considerable effort to eliminate welfare recipients' mistrust, apprehension and fear of government bureaucrats.