Quebec's distinct welfare state: on poverty among families with children, Quebec and the rest of Canada have taken different paths.

Author:Raiq, Hicham

Recent issues of Inroads have featured an ongoing debate about Quebec's exceptionalism when it comes to fighting poverty and inequality. Pierre Fortin (1) has shown that poverty rates and inequality of disposable household incomes (after tax and transfers) are significantly lower in Quebec than elsewhere in Canada, and even compare favourably to those in Europe's generous welfare states. The subsequent debate has focused primarily on the political and economic sustainability of Quebec's exceptional position. (2) Contributors have also noted in passing that the changing composition of families and labour markets is an important factor in accounting for the outcomes observed, and that Quebec in particular has made major efforts to support families with children. (3) Here we take a closer look at the effect of Quebec's policies to combat poverty among families with children on poverty rates of different family types.

As in other advanced societies, family structure in Quebec has undergone rapid change over the past several decades, in particular with the rise of two-earner and single-parent families. Single-parent families, mostly headed by women, have posed new challenges to welfare states as such families are disproportionately prone to poverty. One major distinguishing feature of the different "welfare regimes" famously identified by Danish sociologist Gosta Esping-Andersen is their distinctive approaches to families and the labour force participation of mothers. (4) These differences are likely to have a major impact on the extent to which the different regimes are able to meet the challenges posed by the growing differentiation of family types.

As we have shown elsewhere, (5) while Quebec's social policies are more generous than those of the other major Canadian provinces across the board, what really sets the province apart is its much greater emphasis on poverty-combating policies aimed specifically at families with children. These policies include the much-touted subsidized daycare system and extended parental leave program, both of which enable mothers of young children to remain attached to the labour force more easily, along with provincial family allowances and the massive child assistance refundable tax credit which in 2005 replaced several preexisting programs supporting families with children. Together these policies constitute a concerted strategy to combat poverty among families with children. (6)

So how does Quebec stack up against the other Canadian provinces and other countries when it comes to poverty rates among different types of families? We look at two measures of poverty. The conventional measure used in the comparative literature is relative poverty: poverty defined as income below a certain percentage of the median. The most often used measure is disposable household income (after taxes and transfers), controlled for family size, of 50 per cent of the median income or less. We will refer to this as standard poverty. In addition to this we will look at household incomes below 30 per cent of the median, which we refer to as acute poverty. This measure can be seen as an indicator of the depth of poverty, which can, in principle, vary independently of the overall standard rate.

To assess the effect of Quebec's family-oriented antipoverty strategy, we focus here specifically on poverty rates for families with children--both two-parent and single-parent families. As noted, single-parent families are a source of major concern for policymakers: they are far more vulnerable to the threat of poverty than two-parent families, in which one parent may be able to compensate for the effect of a loss of income by the other.

In view of the ongoing debate about Quebec's "exceptionalism," we are first of all interested in assessing the extent to which Quebec has succeeded in reducing poverty among families with children in comparison with the other major Canadian provinces: Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario. In the comparative literature on welfare states, Canada is invariably treated as one homogeneous system, usually classified as a "liberal" or "market-oriented" welfare state together with most other Anglo-Saxon countries. However, the marked differences between Quebec and the other Canadian provinces raise questions about this taken-for-granted classification. Therefore, we also compare Quebec with some countries representative of other welfare regime types to gauge how far Quebec has veered from the "liberal" model. For this purpose we have decided to include four European countries in our comparisons: Sweden, the Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom. These choices require a bit of explanation.

Esping-Andersen's original classification of welfare state regimes identified three ideal types: the "liberal" regimes characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon countries, the "conservative" regimes found mainly on the European continent...

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