Engendering Citizenship? A Critical Feminist Analysis of Canadian Welfare-to-Work Policies and the Employment Experiences of Lone Mothers

By Breitkreuz, Rhonda S. | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, June 2005 | Go to article overview
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Engendering Citizenship? A Critical Feminist Analysis of Canadian Welfare-to-Work Policies and the Employment Experiences of Lone Mothers


Breitkreuz, Rhonda S., Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


Like other liberal-welfare states, Canada, in a climate of balanced budgets and deficit reduction, has been active in developing policies intended to move welfare recipients into employment in order to achieve self-sufficiency. The purpose of this paper is to employ a critical feminist analysis to examine the extent to which these policies, developed under the ideological umbrella of neo-liberalism, are gender sensitive. Literature on the economic and non-economic impacts of welfare-to-work policies is reviewed to evaluate whether these initiatives, while mandating lone-mothers into employment, recognize the gendered nature of work, employment and poverty. Gaps in current research are identified and questions are posed about the implications of welfare-to-work on the citizenship entitlements of low-income lone mothers.

Key words: citizenship, gender, lone mothers, welfare-to-work

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The 1990s signaled a dramatic change in how Canada addresses income security. The trend in Canada, as in several other liberal-welfare states, has been to approach welfare reform through a market-oriented approach known as welfare-to-work. According to this approach, welfare recipients who are deemed employable by government receive benefits only if they are taking steps towards gainful employment through participating in employability programs, attending school, or actively engaging in job-search activities (Gorlick & Brethour, 1998). Although welfare-to-work programs have existed in Canada in one form or another since the 1970s, there was a "seismic shift" in the expansion of these programs in the 1990s (Peck, 2001). The Province of Alberta, for instance, began a process of revamping its social welfare system through developing regulations to restrict eligibility and financial support for welfare recipients and mandating welfare recipients into job training programs (Gorlick & Brethour, 1998; Vosko, 1999).

The introduction of welfare-to-work policies in Canada is but one indication of a neo-liberal shift which is moving Canada from a model of social citizenship, where all citizens are entitled to a base level of benefits, to a model of market citizenship, where citizenship entitlement is contingent upon a person's attachment to the labour market (Baker & Tippin, 1999; Brodie, 1997). This shift in citizenship entitlements could have significant consequences for low-income lone mothers, given that women have different labour-market experiences than men which are further exacerbated for lone mothers due to difficult labour-market realities and a greater burden of unpaid caring work (Mason, 2003). Baker and Tippin (1999) state that "gendering the concept of employability ... requires acknowledgement that drawing low-income people into paid work may have different consequences for them, depending on their gender (as well as social class and culture)" (p. 263). If welfare-to-work employability initiatives--while encouraging lone-mothers into employment--fail to recognize the realities of the labour market for low-income women, as well as the caring work that mothers do, they will be unresponsive to the realities of women's lives and therefore ineffective.

In this paper, I utilize a critical feminist approach to examine the development of Canadian welfare-to-work policies within the influential, if often unseen, ideological umbrella of neo-liberalism, deconstructing the concepts of gender equality, dependency and self-sufficiency as they are understood in current welfare-to-work initiatives. Reviewing literature on the economic and non-economic impacts of welfare-to-work policies, I evaluate the extent to which these policies, while mandating lone-mothers into employment, recognize the gendered nature of work, employment and poverty. Identifying gaps in current research, I then pose some questions about the implications of welfare-to-work on the citizenship entitlements of low-income lone mothers.

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