Precarious Dignity: The Unacceptable Plight of Montreal’s Working Poor
On January 25, 2009, La Presse’s Caroline Touzin brought Quebecers back down to Earth from their holiday high. In a devastating article entitled “La pauvreté au détour de chaque corridor” (Poverty in Every Hallway), Touzin describes the spectral presence of extreme poverty that haunts the daily routine of many of the students enrolled in Montréal-Nord’s Calixa-Lavallée High School. The stories that Touzin recounts surely come as no surprise to Montreal’s growing number of poor, but to many privileged middle and upper-middle class Montrealers (like myself), Touzin’s article is most probably startling, not to mention disturbing. How many of us could have imagined that there are Montreal teenagers who wear their school uniform on weekends because their parents cannot afford to buy them extra clothes? Who among the privileged classes could have fathomed a mother bursting into tears in the middle of her child’s high school gym floor because she could not afford to pay $10 a month for him to receive a hot meal every day at school? Who among us could have pictured teenagers so poor that they could not afford to eat before their after-school basketball games? Or a student vowing to donate to the local food bank to help feed his friends’ families? The unpleasant reality is that poverty-stricken Montreal households are not only numerous, but growing in number. Those of us who love our city and who care about human flourishing should pay attention. The poverty in our own backyard demands careful policy responses, and it is about time Montrealers began demanding them.
In October 2016, Centraide of Greater Montreal and the Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) released a study that showed one quarter of people between the ages of 18 and 64 in the Greater Montreal area can be counted among the “working poor.” The study defines “working poor” as people who are aged 18 to 64, have a household revenue below Statistics Canada’s low income measure, earn at least $3000 annually, live alone or with a spouse, and are not students. The study points out that the first decade or so of the 21st century saw a remarkable growth in the number of working poor in Montreal from 91 000 in 2001 to 126 000 in 2012. It also observes that immigrants are five times more likely to be working while living in poverty than non-immigrants and single parents represent 38% of the working poor, most of them being single mothers.
This incredibly high rate of poverty has had predictable consequences. Approximately one in ten Montrealers rely on social assistance for income support every month, a number that includes 46 500 children. Carolyn Hebert, World Vision Canada’s director for Quebec, expresses worry about the growing gap between the rich and the poor in Montreal, a gap that is growing at a rate Hebert calls “alarming.” This fear isn’t without cause: from 2008 to 2011, the number of Montrealers relying on food banks for nourishment has grown from 112 319 on average per month to 148 460, an increase of 32%.
The causes of these jarring phenomena are relatively easy to isolate. In May 2016, The Montreal Gazette reported that, “a study by the Quebec research institute IRIS found the minimum ‘viable’ wage for a single person living in Montreal, based on living expenses in the city, is $15.38 an hour,” despite the current minimum wage in Quebec only being $11.25/h. On such a salary, a worker would have to work 47 hours a week with no time off just to rise above the poverty line (the required number of hours is obviously higher if that worker has children). The result is that growing numbers of minimum wage workers are working two jobs simply to give their children the means to survive. A study by The Globe and Mail found that a majority of boroughs in Montreal are primarily populated by people who work in the service sector (retail sales, routine administration, food preparation, and personal care), and are therefore more likely than blue collar (manufacturing and construction) and white collar workers to earn poverty-level salaries. The propagation of low-paid service sector jobs is particularly visible in former industrial neighbourhoods like Montréal-Nord, Montreal-Est, Pointe-aux-Trembles and Anjou.
The combination of pitifully low wages and rapidly rising housing prices has resulted in a growing number of low-income workers who spend unreasonably high proportions of their income on rent. A survey of the available data compiled by Le Devoir found that in 2017, the average tenant (or tenant family) in Montréal-Nord, one of the poorest boroughs in Montreal, spends 37% of their income on housing, a remarkable proportion given that the average cost of rent in that borough is only $755 a month. Similar proportions can be observed in the predominantly service-sector neighbourhoods mentioned above. The survey also found that housing prices in Montreal are on a upwards climb, having increased by 12.3% from 2011 to 2016, while the average household income has only increased by 10.3%.
A final factor contributing to extreme levels of poverty in boroughs like Montréal-Nord is their comparatively high rates of unemployment. In 2011, 14.1% of Montréal-Nord inhabitants were out of work, while the unemployment rate for the island of Montreal as a whole was only 7.7%. According to staffers at Carrefour jeunesse-emploi (CJE) Bourassa-Sauvé, responsible for helping the unemployed of Montréal-Nord to find work, one of the main causes of the high rate of unemployment is the failure of the government of Quebec to recognize foreign degrees. The story of Dr. Lamia Barraoui stands out: the Algerian microbiologist, having completed her postdoctoral degree in Spain, could not find a job at any academic institution in Montreal. Rehab Tarraf, a Syrian architect, found herself in a similar situation. In 2014, Dr. Barraoui gave up her search for research positions in microbiology, and took both her Ph.D. and postdoctoral degrees off her CV. Bouchra Klaoua, director of the CJE, cites high rates of poverty in the borough as another probable cause of high unemployment. She explains that children growing up in poor households are more likely to drop out of school before they graduate high school, in part due to the fact that their parents simply do not have the time to help them get through school, many of them having to work two or three jobs to survive. Students who drop out of school before their high school graduation are at risk of not being able to find a job, since most employers only hire people with high school degrees.
In aggregate, the factors listed above form a real poverty trap for Montreal’s poor. Outside of specialized professions that require Bachelor’s and graduate degrees, the majority of job opportunities in Montreal are in the service sector, thanks in part to deindustrialization. Jobs in this sector very often pay less than $15.38/h, forcing many of its workers’ children to try to get through school with minimal parental and material support. If we then consider the immense psychological stress that not being able to afford rent and having to rely on food banks imposes on families and children, we should quickly come to the inevitable conclusion that our economic system is stacked against the poor. This is unacceptable.
Fortunately, there are solutions that can be implemented, should our elected leaders find the political will to do so. The government of Quebec should immediately follow the example of the cities of Seattle and San Francisco, and the states of New York and California, and pass legislation to gradually increase the minimum wage to $15/h, then tie it to inflation. Despite the warnings of conservative think tanks and politicians, studies have repeatedly shown the positive impact of raising the minimum wage on low-income workers, and that doing so has little to no effect on employment. The government should then consider wage subsidies for low wage workers, with the goal of ensuring that the current Canadian housing bubble does not render a $15 minimum wage insufficient to make a dignified living. Lastly, the federal, provincial and municipal governments should immediately move to put in place a housing plan for Montreal. This plan should include some modest rent control measures to ensure that tenants are not overburdened with the probable continued spike in the housing market. It should also include direct subsidies to tenants and the construction of social housing units to counter the likely decrease in the supply of new housing that will be provoked by the new rent control measures.
If market forces continue to push working families into poverty, thus stacking the deck against both them and their children, governments should provide the means to liberate them from a life of pure survival. The bottom line is that anyone who works full time should have the means to live a dignified life. This means full weeks of work, yes, but reasonable amounts of time for leisure and parenting. Children need their parents as much as Montreal needs its workers. It will take a collective effort to push for policies that will help ensure human dignity and freedom from poverty become birthrights of all Montrealers, whether they send their children to Lower Canada College or Calixa-Lavallée.
Edited by Marissa Fortune.