Academic journal article Family Relations

Balancing Expectations for Employability and Family Responsibilities While on Social Assistance: Low-Income Mothers' Experiences in Three Canadian Provinces*

Academic journal article Family Relations

Balancing Expectations for Employability and Family Responsibilities While on Social Assistance: Low-Income Mothers' Experiences in Three Canadian Provinces*

Article excerpt


Drawing upon a discourse analysis of public-use policy documents and qualitative interview data, this paper explores how mothers on social assistance in three Canadian provinces balance actual or expected policy expectations of their employability (e.g., participation in welfare-to-work programming) with their caregiving responsibilities. The results suggest that mothers' experiences of a time crunch, overload, and interference varied depending on their employability status and that they often experienced work-family conflict in ways similar to that experienced by working mothers not on assistance. The policy implications of these findings are discussed.

Key Words: caregiving, mothers, social assistance, welfare-to-work, work-family conflict.

Since the early 1980s, the economic doctrine and political ideology of neoliberalism has garnered political and popular support for economic restructuring and redefining the Canadian welfare state in all facets of social policy (Hartman, 2005), including provincial social assistance programs. The increasing globalization of competitive markets, as well as national and provincial concerns over rising deficits or debts, or both, and growing social assistance caseloads, are factors understood to demand a neoliberal response of restructuring to minimize state interference and prioritize market individualism, including its corresponding values of self-reliance, competition, and self-sufficiency (Bakker, 1996; Brodie, 1996; O'Connor, OrlofT, & Shaver, 1999; Shaver, 2001). Much like in the other Western industrialized societies of the United States, Australia, and Britain (O'Connor et al.), the rise of a neoliberal discourse in Canada has meant that social assistance receipt is increasingly framed as a market relationship and programs are infiltrated by welfare-to-work initiatives such as education and employment training programs designed to reintegrate benefit recipients back into the market as soon as possible.

This market-oriented relationship as a basis of benefit receipt has eclipsed and undermined traditional social citizenship orientations. Although expectations that benefits are temporary and that recipients must seek employment have always been embedded within Canadian social assistance policy (Lightman & Riches, 2000), this residual program originally provided individuals with a limited version of social citizenship rights (Scott, 1999)-to a "modicum of economic welfare and security"-to alleviate some of their experiences of inequality in a capitalist society (Marshall 1963, p. 74). For example, individuals' rights to assistance when in need, along with the right to be free from mandatory participation in work incentive programs were protected under the 1966 Canada Assistance Plan (CAP). With the replacement of CAP with the Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST) in 1995, the right to adequate assistance has disappeared in Canada. Instead, individuals' social rights are increasingly commodified in ways suggested by Esping-Anderson's (1990) classification of Canada as a liberal welfare state. Individuals' "entitlement to benefits is directly related to their capacity to sell their labour power in the market places" (Lightman & Riches, p. 180) and their "employability" efforts (e.g., mandatory participation in welfare-to-work programs) are a condition of benefit receipt (Breitkreuz, 2005; Dwyer, 2004b; Gazso, 2006a; O'Connor et al., 1999; Walter, 2002; Weigt, 2006).

Indeed, increasingly restrictive and punitive policy constraints are ratcheted upward to enforce individuals' employability so that they quickly emulate values of neoliberalism and become independent, flexible, and skill-oriented individuals capable of participation in the labor market. This ratcheting upward of expectations of employability is not only unique to Canada alone but also acutely manifest in time limits on benefit receipt in the United States (Gazso, 2006a) and the "creeping conditionality" evident in the restructuring of social assistance policy in the United kingdom (Dwyer, 2004a, p. …

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