Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Taking a Life Course Perspective on Social Assistance Use in Canada: A Different Approach

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Taking a Life Course Perspective on Social Assistance Use in Canada: A Different Approach

Article excerpt

Provincial social assistance programs, which are the bottom tier of state income support in Canada, have been the subject of dramatic restructuring since the early 1990s. Changes to these programs in several provinces (i.e., British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario), particularly in light of the replacement of the Canada Assistance Plan with the Canada Health and Social Transfer in 1996, have included reductions in benefits, increasingly restrictive rules and eligibility requirements, and the growth of welfare-to-work programming. In Canada and other countries a neoliberal political discourse has contributed to a transformation in social assistance policies, from what were perceived as "passive" income support programs, providing benefits primarily on the basis of need, to more "active" policies which seek to reconnect individuals to the labour market as soon as possible.

The goal of these more active welfare programs is generally to promote "self-sufficiency" through paid work, rather than "dependence" of individuals and families upon welfare, thereby reducing state costs, deficits, and taxation in the context of international economic competition and open and globalized economies (Scharpf and Schmidt 2000). Individualism and "independence" have become key values and citizens of the contemporary neoliberal welfare state are presumed to be independent, self-sufficient, and flexible, and therefore willing to embrace personal and financial risks in the labour market and to personally manage the negative or positive outcomes (Brodie 1996). These changes are not at all unique to Canada, and similar welfare state restructuring can be seen in a number of other industrialized countries, including the other "liberal" Anglo-American welfare states of the United States (US), Great Britain, and Australia (Esping-Andersen 1999). In particular, Canadian changes have coincided with the US introduction of Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) and its attendant benefit reductions and time limits under US President Clinton's Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) (Bashevkin 2002).

Popular sociological perspectives on this welfare state restructuring emphasize how policy, the labour market, and social structures of class, race/ethnicity, and gender constrain individuals' economic choices and perpetuate their poverty. In contrast, economic and rational choice approaches have placed the primary responsibility for poverty on the employment, marriage, and childbearing decisions made by individuals. While both approaches have had considerable influence on policy debates (the latter more than the former), adopting one or the other encourages an inhibiting dichotomy that polarizes debates about restructuring and its effects on individuals and ignores the theoretically important tension between structure and agency. One way to incorporate both social structures and individual action and choice into an examination of social assistance in Canada is to adopt a life course perspective. (2)

In broad terms, life course research examines the patterns, timing, and experience of transitions within the interrelated domains of work and education, health, and family. The life course exists both in normative ideas of age-graded transitions and stages, as well as the observed trajectories taken by individuals. These trajectories are seen as affected by a number of factors including history, social structures of gender, age, race/ethnicity and class, relationships with others, as well as individual decisions (Marshall and Mueller 2003). The life course, as set of normative stages and also as observed trajectories, is shaped and reinforced partially by the assumptions and rules of state programs that reinforce gender, race/ethnicity, class, and age as dimensions of social inequality.

The life course can also be thought of in terms of resources. The transitions and trajectories experienced by individuals are connected to the stocks and flows of various interrelated types of "capital" possessed by individuals, including human, financial, health, social (Policy Research Initiative 2004). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.