Are Canadian and U.S. Social Assistance Policies Converging?

Article excerpt

Various interpretations of social policy in Canada and the United States alternatively see either persisting patterns of distinctiveness between these countries that appear likely to extend into the fore-seeable future, or warn that Canada may be on the brink of "...a massive restructuring of social programmes along American lines." (2) Arguments in the latter camp often focus on economic and cultural integration as the forces driving policy harmonization between the two countries.

These more general debates about social policy in Canada and the United States may be examined from the vantage point of the issue of social assistance; that is, cash and in-kind benefits provided to those deemed to be without the means for an adequate level of subsistence. Despite being only one component of the larger welfare state, last-resort social assistance plays a particularly crucial role in determining the character of a welfare state through providing in the final instance for those who fail in the market or do not receive adequate support within the family. Polanyi's The Great Transformation provides a compelling account of the considerable significance of last-resort assistance in shaping other social institutions, particularly the market. Certainly the welfare state includes a wide variety of policy areas such as income maintenance, labor market policies, education, and housing among others; however, "policies for the needy" constitute "the focal point of a social welfare system." (3)

Gerard Boychuk holds the Izaak Walton Killam Memorial postdoctoral fellowship in the department of political science at the University of Alberta. Among his recent work are "Reforming the Canadian Social Assistance Complex: The Provincial Welfare States and Canadian Federalism," in Canada: The State of the Federation, 1995; "Floor or Ceiling: Standards in Social Assistance," Policy Options 17, 5 (June 1996); and a book-length study titled Patchworks of Purpose: The Development of Provincial Social Assistance in Canada (forthcoming, 1998).

There have been and continue to be significant differences (outlined in the first section of this paper) between the American and Canadian social assistance complexes. (4) The conventional wisdom is that social assistance policies have tended to be more generous in Canada than the United States, and that the central government in Canada has played a large role in fostering such generosity. But the reality is much more complex. Neither in terms of the chronology of the initial inception of mothers' allowance programs (precursors to modern social assistance) nor in terms of benefit levels have Canadian provinces been more generous than their American counterparts for single mothers with dependents. In addition, central government involvement through both federal and national programs for social assistance developed earlier in the United States than in Canada. (5) Then in the 1960s Canada moved ahead of the U.S. in terms of the assistance provided to categories of people in poverty other than those categories which in the U.S. would be eligible for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). The two countries have continued to diverge over the course of the past thirty years. Social assistance in the U.S. continues to be characterized by a much stronger central government presence than in Canada, and there are no Canadian analogues to the U.S. national assistance programs; yet, the Canadian social assistance complex in the contemporary period extends considerably more generous assistance to a range of individuals and families in need who receive only minimal assistance across the border.

The second section offers an interpretation of the distinct development of social assistance in the U.S. and Canada which challenges the assumptions underpinning arguments for convergence. The trajectories of the Canadian and American social assistance systems are best explained by reference to the distinct socio-economic contexts in which these systems initially emerged, the impact of institutionalized policy traditions in reinforcing differences between these two systems, and, especially in regards to current patterns of development, the impact of race. …