Yas, (welfare) queen: Conservatives revive myth in attempt to curb the CERB

    May 6, 2020

    OTTAWA—Does the Conservative Party of Canada actually like Canada, or Canadians? Not even Michelle Rempel Garner could be bothered to stay in the country during lockdown, given she’s buggered off to the U.S.

    #AndrewScheer was trending and that never turns out well for him. Turns out, he wants to kick Canadian workers off the welfare state as soon as possible because people won’t want to work. Scheer is not a good look for Conservatives, who ultimately are not a good look for themselves. His words are reminiscent of Mitt Romney’s comments about the 47 per cent, made with such disdain and contempt that they lost him the 2012 U.S. election. Everything old is new again, as Conservatives are left flat-footed, defending their cruelty.

    The lack of humanity in the response and rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 is evident as Conservative leaders flounder in trying to express why millions of people should be kicked off the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) in the middle of a pandemic that has not yet ceased. This reasoning is a revival of the myth of the “welfare queen,” who fraudulently lives off taxpayer-funded luxury, refusing to work. There is no concrete evidence that welfare fraud—the assumption upon which this myth is constructed—is rampant. As a paper from Osgoode Law noted, “Not surprisingly, given the lack of definitional clarity regarding ‘fraud,’ reports on its incidence vary dramatically.”

    However, this is the caricature, popularized in the 1980s and 90s, that propelled Ronald Regan to victory in 1980 (and Margaret Thatcher in 1979), and is therefore always in the background of Conservative policies. It is a myth that shaped the 1996 welfare reform bill and gave us means-tested social programs that end up costing the poor more, the closer they reach the threshold of earnings. As written in the quarterly journal, National Affairs, “Means-tested benefits have the advantage of being more narrowly targeted, and therefore less costly, than universal benefits. One disadvantage, however, is that a means-tested benefit imposes an implicit marginal tax on people with earnings close to the income level at which the benefit phases out.”

    This is what Scheer is proposing: an effective marginal tax increase on the people for whom this crisis is most burdensome. How can one not say that Conservatives and the right wing hate the poor and working class? It is a myth that punishes those who increasingly make up the poor and working class: women (many single mothers), immigrants, migrants, people of colour, people with disabilities, and trans people.

    It is class and demographic warfare; it is the culling of society.

    These people matter, so perhaps we should stop creating policy for those who can afford iPhones and create policy for those in the tails of the distribution curve. In doing that, those who can afford both Apple Music and Apple News will be counted and cared for.

    While “welfare queen” is the caricature, moral hazard is the economic argument that goes something like this: if you bail out people, they won’t want to work, producing “disincentives to work.” The broader definition of moral hazard is that “when an individual has an incentive to increase their exposure to risk because they do not bear the full costs of that risk.” That is certainly true of the “too big to fail” corporations and real estate market, resulting in a greater share of tax dollars directed towards corporate bailouts, not people. And that’s the difference: moral hazard applies to, and questions, the character and moral standing of the individual, however, when it comes to the corporation taking on more risk, it is encouraged because those short-term gains are reflected in the stock market. And politicians think the stock market is the economy upon which to ride their path to electoral victory—yet another bastion of neoliberalism’s market fundamentalism.

    But the consequences of that moral hazard are borne by the public. And so are the impending bailouts, which are never consequences of the moral failings or bad decisions of the corporate management (corporate executives are also “too big to fail”). Rather, they’ve been repackaged as a necessary component of capitalism, which they are not. Capitalism without failure is like the Tragically Hip without Gord Downie. It’s not the same. The moral hazard argument as it is currently applied has no credibility in the wake of “too big to fail” policies that encourage more risk-taking by corporate structures and has an outsized impact on the individual Canadians. Just ask Bombardier.

    Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.