Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

Moral Codes of Mothering and the Introduction of Welfare-to-Work in Ontario

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

Moral Codes of Mothering and the Introduction of Welfare-to-Work in Ontario

Article excerpt

CONSIDERABLE RESEARCH EXPLORES the negative outcomes of neoliberal inspired reform of social assistance programs and policies in Canada (1) for lone mothers. The National Council on Welfare (2010) finds that reforms have resulted in monthly social assistance benefits that are not enough to raise a mother and her child above the Low Income Cut Offs (LICOs). Scholars have observed how reforms have paralleled changes in policy conceptualization of lone mothers' social citizenship rights (Bezanson 2006; Breitkreuz 2005) or how lone mothers' lives are morally regulated through social assistance policy (Little 1994, 2006). The critical emphasis on neoliberalism as the driving force behind social assistance reform, however, has resulted in a lack of attention to how neoliberalism is but one discourse of many (Padamsee 2009) that have influenced provincial social assistance reform and impacted low income mothers' experiences of mothering alone.

In this paper, I ask: How does the introduction of welfare-to-work policies and programs and the concurrent enforcement of lone mothers' employability in Ontario social assistance policy parallel cultural shifts in dominant moral codes of mothering? I take up principles of ideational analysis (Beland 2009; Padamsee 2009) to place attention on how policy change must also be understood as reflecting social cultural ideas and discourses about mothering. I reveal a shift in moral codes of mothering within the wider Canadian social milieu from the postwar period onward. I then trace how Ontario social assistance policy has been reformed to regulate lone mothers' conformity to these moral codes through changes in the conditions of lone mothers' entitlement. Finally, I use this case as an entry point to consider the larger implications of public and policy allegiance to these moral codes for all mothers.

My central argument is that the introduction of welfare-to-work programs in Ontario did not occur in a neoliberal state-sanctioned vacuum but also involved the circulation of ideas about moral mothering outside of policy into policy. Practices of and attitudes toward moral mothering that have transformed outside of policy are linked to changing perceptions of lone mothers' citizenship rights and expectations of their behaviors within policy. And social assistance policy change must also be read as revealing changes in discourses about moral mothering in general. With the entrenchment of new moral codes in our wider society, all mothers, regardless of their income, share particular challenges in their efforts to be good mothers today.


The reform of social assistance programs and policies in each Canadian province tends to be understood as connected to a national neoliberal agenda (see, e.g., Bashevkin 2002; Breitkreuz 2005; Coulter 2009). (2) Materializing in the 1970s as an economic doctrine and ideology (Hartman 2005), neoliberalism "Canadian-style" stressed the need for retrenchment or the "rolling back" of existing social programs rather than redistribution of limited state supports, largely in response to the perceived fiscal crisis associated with spending (e.g., deficits and debts) on social welfare programs (Peck and Tickell 2002). This orientation was shared with other liberal western welfare (3) states, including the United States and Great Britain, which experienced similar crisis discourses about social spending in the midst of economic recessions and unpredictable international trading markets (Bashevkin 2002).

With an emphasis on smaller government, greater free market competition, individualization, and reduced collective security for citizens, neoliberalism has increasingly driven policy reform at national and provincial levels in Canada (Baker and Tippin 1999; Brodie 1996). Throughout the 1990s, reforms once primarily influenced by economic concerns were complemented by the "rolling out" of new forms of government intervention and regulation embedded within social policies (Peck and Tickell 2002). …

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