Workfare in Toronto: More of the Same?

By Lightman, Ernie; Mitchell, Andrew et al. | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Workfare in Toronto: More of the Same?

Lightman, Ernie, Mitchell, Andrew, Herd, Dean, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

This paper uses a recent survey of welfare leavers in Toronto to examine Workfare, a uniquely American initiative introduced into Canada, with its different welfare state history and traditions. When classic American workfare was imported by an enthusiastic government in Ontario, its application led to employment outcomes remarkably similar to those in the US (reduced caseloads, insecure and contingent employment, high recidivism). Yet, Canada's earlier commitment to community and collective responsibility have not been entirely subsumed below the overarching American umbrella. Welfare programs in Canada--specifically, workfare--reflect both the difficulties of maintaining great difference, and also the possibilities of following an alternate path.

Keywords: workforce, welfare, Canada, community, recidivism


In the immediate aftermath of the 2004 election, many Americans looked enviously northwards, to Canada, a country that seemed to be marching to the beat of a different drummer. Though the stories of mass migration to Canada in reaction to the Bush re-election have thus far proven apocryphal, Americans nevertheless tend to see Canada as a gentler, more caring society, a place where the rugged individualism of free market economics is constrained by a greater sense of community and of collective concern for the disadvantaged.

Undoubtedly there is some historical truth in this perception. In this Research Note we look at Workfare, a uniquely American approach towards welfare, that has been introduced into Canada, particularly in the province of Ontario: we shall examine whether the generally glowing portrayal of the Canadian experience retains validity against a backdrop of workfare, and to what extent welfare initiatives in Canada and the United States have converged in recent years. The short answer is that while workfare in Canada, and most especially in Ontario (Gorlick, 2002) has been remarkably similar to that of the United States, recent events suggest that perhaps the American model does not after all fit quite so comfortably in the Canadian context.

The Context

Canada's welfare state development was based in large part on the post-World War II model of Britain, combining the economics of Keynes with the social innovations of Beveridge. By the mid-1960's, Canada had developed a set of social programs that, while modest and fully compatible with a market economy, nevertheless offered a reasonable range of protections to a large portion of its population. Standing high in this landscape, alongside public health insurance, was the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP), 1966. This piece of federal legislation offered the provinces open-ended 50/50 cost-sharing for the provision of welfare (i.e., Ottawa paid half the costs as incurred by the provinces, without upper limit). Perhaps the most important feature of CAP was an outright prohibition on attaching any conditions, other than being "in need", to the receipt of benefits. What this meant was that the provinces could not impose any work-related requirements--what we today call workfare--to eligibility for the assistance cheque. The provinces, lured by the attraction of what was referred to as the 'fifty cent dollar' rapidly expanded their welfare services.

The global economic recession of the 1970's was experienced in Canada, and its impact continued through the 1980's. Social programs were tightened and downsized, though somewhat imperceptibly (Gray, 1990). The process was accelerated by the passage of the 1988 Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the United States, which over time brought the economic and social systems of the two countries dramatically closer. The FTA added pressure on Canadian industry to lower its cost to compete successfully in the new enlarged common economic market: Lower costs for manufacturers entailed lower taxes, and lower taxes in turn implied less social spending. …

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