Quebec’s pre-election budget had a clear, immediate benefit for 6.4 million people: an additional $500 in their pocket.
Anyone who takes home $100,000 or less after taxes — roughly 94 per cent of taxpayers — is eligible for the money.
That adds up to $3.2 billion, in total.
The payout, announced Tuesday in Premier François Legault’s final budget before a provincial election set for October, is meant to help offset the rising cost of living, with the rate of inflation at its highest level in decades.
But many advocates and community groups argue the money could have been better used either by putting more money into the hands of people with the least spending power, or by investing more into programs and services that would benefit them.
“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 inequity the way we would have hoped to see,” said Tasha Lackman, executive director of the Depot Community Food Centre in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood.
Adejoke Olaniyan, a client of the food bank and a single mother of a 12-year-old boy, said the cash won’t be sufficient to help her make ends meet. She lives in a small apartment, but says 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 won’t lie to you, I’m scared. I’m really, really scared, because as a single mother working as a caregiver, I don’t get enough hours.”
Calls for a more targeted approach
In its fall economic update, the Coalition Avenir Québec government also gave residents extra cash to help counter 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.
Prof. Stephen Gordon, an economist at Université Laval in Quebec City, 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 earners could then have gotten more help to deal with the rising cost of groceries and gas, he said.
“If they are going to cut the line at $100,000, there’s no reason why they could not have put that number way farther down,” he said.
WATCH | Will a $500 one-time cheque provide low-income Quebecers with the relief they need?
Saray Ortiz Torres, a community organizer with Project Genesis, a non-profit anti-poverty agency based in Côte-des-Neiges, called the budget “very, very disappointing.” She had been hoping for greater investments in social and affordable housing.
The government set aside $100 million to build an additional 1,000 affordable housing units over five years across Quebec. It also committed to completing 3,500 units already promised through the AccèsLogis program.
Torres said those commitments don’t come close to addressing the extent of the shortage of affordable housing. 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 way to address the long-term solution to the problem people are facing right now,” she said.
‘Everybody is impacted by inflation’: finance minister
On Wednesday, Finance Minister Eric Girard defended the decision to make the payout available to most Quebecers, saying “everybody is impacted by inflation.”
In an interview on CBC Montreal’s Daybreak, Girard said the slowing of the supply chain due to the Omicron wave, coupled with the invasion of Ukraine, has created a situation few could have predicted.
“Because we have broader inflation, we’re coming up with a broader application,” he said.
He said the government arrived at the number by calculating the difference between the projected inflation (which stands at 4.6 per cent 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.
Regardless of the calculation, the $500 payout is clearly crafted to appeal to voters ahead of the October election, said political scientist Prof. Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.
Béland said the government appears to have taken a prudent approach overall, with major new investments in health and education, but said the opposition at Quebec’s National Assembly has rightly criticized the money as early electioneering.
“It is less effective, certainly, to address poverty,” he said. “At the same time it’s more effective from an electoral standpoint.”