"The Pecker Detectors Are Back": Regulation of the Family Form in Ontario Welfare Policy

Article excerpt

[The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors only and do not represent the opinions of the Ontario Legal Aid Plan.]

How do we understand the state's need to police the social and sexual lives of single mothers? To what extent has this policy changed over time in its regulation of single mothers' relationships? This paper explains how the state determines who is and who is not worthy for Mothers' Allowance based on a mother's associations with men - and how this has been contested by those subject to it. Following a brief historical examination of the policy's determination of moral worthiness, we pay particular attention to a 1995 change to the definition of "spouse" in the social assistance system, which has meant a return to the practice of intense surveillance of poor mothers' relationships and contacts with men, after an eight-year period in which the state withdrew

somewhat - although never entirely - from this scrutiny. Thoses who police these relationships have been nicknamed the "Pecker Detectors." The paper concludes that low-income single mothers have become a target for moral scrutiny and blame in the 1990s. This not only impacts upon single mothers on welfare but it affects all women. Condemning single mothers to abject poverty and moral scrutiny deters other women from leaving unhappy or abusive relationships, impeding the ability of all women to become full and equal citizens in Ontario society.

(Les opinions exprintees dans cet article sont strictement celles des auteurs et ne representent pas les opinions du Regime d'aide juridique de l'Ontario.)

Comment peut-on comprendre le besoin de l'etat de controler la vie sociale et sexuelle des meres celibataires? Jusqu'a quel point cette politique de reglementation des rapports des meres celibataires a-t-elle change avec: le temps? Cet article explique comment l'etat determine quelles meres meritent de toucher une allocation en se basant sur les rapports que ces meres ont avec les hommes et comment cette politique a ete contestee par les personnes visees. Apres un bref examen historique de la facon dont la politique determine le merite moral, l'article met l'accent sur un changement apporte a la. definition du terme <> en 1995 dans le cadre du systeme d'aide sociale. Ce changement s'est traduit par un retour a la pratique de surveillance intense des rapports et communications des meres celibataires avec les hommes, apres une periode de huit ans oil l'etat s'etait quelque peu - mais pas completement - eloigne de cette pratique. Les gens qui surveillent ces rapports ont ete surnommes les <>. L'article conclue que les meres celibataires qui ont un faible revenu sont devenues la cible d'un controle et de reproches moraux dans les annees 1990. Ceci n'influe pas seulement sur les meres celibataires qui touchent des prestations d'aide sociale mais sur toutes les femmes. En condamnant les meres celibataires a une pauvrete pitoyable et a un examen moral, on decourage d'autres femmes de quitter des rapports abusifs ou malheureux, nuisant ainsi a la capacite de toutes les femmes de devenir des citoyennes a part entiere de la societe ontarienne.

[T]here is some continuity in the gendered content of today's discussion of welfare and that of eighty years ago. Then and now one dominating concern is a fear that "proper" families would be destabilized by the provision of incentives to single motherhood - whether through marital breakup or out-of-wedlock births - a fear which reveals not far below the surface a view that proper families must be enforced precisely because they do not always come "naturally" and are not always inherently desirable.1

- Linda Gordon

In 1940 Gladys Walker, a single mother, had her Mothers' Allowance cheque cancelled after the welfare worker made several surprise visits to her home. The welfare worker wrote:

I was mystified by a "boy friend" who was in the house when I called and stayed right through the time I was there and had many suggestions as to why the allowance should be granted. …