Differences That Matter: Social Policy and the Working Poor in the United States and Canada

By Beland, Daniel | Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Differences That Matter: Social Policy and the Working Poor in the United States and Canada


Beland, Daniel, Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal


Differences that Matter: Social Policy and the Working Poor in the United States and Canada. Dan Zuberi. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006.

During most of the 1980s and 1990s, the future of social assistance-better known as welfare-dominated North American policy debates more than poverty and social inclusion. More recently, scholars and policy-makers have increasingly debated the status of the working poor, which is largely distinct from the issue of social assistance. In Differences That Matter, University of British Columbia sociologist Dan Zuberi assesses the impact of social and labour policy on the fate of the working poor in Canada and the United States. More specifically, he explores the life and working conditions of hotel workers in Seattle and Vancouver, two cities with a lot in common. The two pairs of hotels studied also belong to the same chain, which reduces the organizational differences between them. This is a crucial issue, as Zuberi stresses the role of broad social policy structures affecting the lives of hotel workers and their families in each country. Because these workers operate in a similar organizational and economic environment, it is easier to identify how cross-national differences in labour and social policy impact the working poor. Derived from a Ph.D. dissertation defended at Harvard University, Differences that Matter is based on the seventy-seven interviews Zuberi conducted. These interviews with Vancouver and Seattle's hotel workers generated evidence about the positive role of Canada's more progressive social and labour policies, which include work training programs, universal public health insurance, comprehensive unemployment benefits, and pro-union labour regulations. According to Zuberi, hotel workers in Vancouver are better off on average than their Seattle counterparts, who have more limited access to social policy resources like health insurance and unemployment benefits. Furthermore, Zuberi points to the positive impact of urban infrastructures like parks and community centres on the lives of hotel workers and their families. After comparing the impact of labour, social policy, and urban policies on the lives of hotel workers in Vancouver and Seattle, Zuberi offers a set of broad policy recommendations aimed at improving the fate of the working poor in Canada and in the United States.

Differences That Matter confirms the traditional progressive belief that comprehensive public policies can make a positive difference in citizens' lives, especially the most vulnerable ones. Considering this, it is not surprising that Zuberi formulates policy recommendations that support progressive taxation, welfare state expansion, and the liberalization of restrictive unionization regulations in the United States. Praising more generous Canadian social and labour policies, he would like the United States to develop a more comprehensive welfare state, among other things.

Overall, Differences That Matter is a well-researched, stimulating book offering a unique look at the relationship between social policy and urban poverty in North America. Although it does not feature an extensive discussion of ethnic relations, the book stresses the positive role of particular labour, social, and urban programs in the social and economic inclusion of immigrants. …

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