A Welfare Trap? the Duration and Dynamics of Social Assistance Use among Lone Mothers in Canada

By Cooke, Martin | Canadian Review of Sociology, August 2009 | Go to article overview

A Welfare Trap? the Duration and Dynamics of Social Assistance Use among Lone Mothers in Canada


Cooke, Martin, Canadian Review of Sociology


BETWEEN THE LATE 1980S AND THE early 2000s, Canada and other western welfare states engaged in important and contentious debates surrounding the restructuring of welfare state programs. These occurred partly as a response to relatively high rates of benefit use and rising government debts resulting from recessions and economic restructuring over the period. The policy responses have involved the redesign of programs to further encourage work and to reduce "dependency" on benefits and to increase labor force participation, and have occurred in continental European and Scandinavian welfare states, as well as in "residual" or "liberal" welfare states, such as Canada and the United States (Esping-Andersen 1999). The thesis of the "path dependency" of welfare state restructuring (Pierson 1994) suggests that changes in these countries have generally been in keeping with the core characteristics of their regime types. Whereas the European Commission's Flexicurity project represents current efforts to balance traditional social protection with labor market flexibility (Wilthagen 2007), changes in the Anglo-American countries have followed the principle of providing low levels of support so as not to create disincentives for labor market participation (Myles and Pierson 1997; Pierson 1994).

In Canada and the United States, the changes from the late 1980s to the early 2000s have generally included reduced eligibility for welfare or social assistance, the lowest tier of state income security, combined with increasing requirements for work-related activities as conditions of assistance, in order to move welfare recipients into the labor market (Bashevkin 2002). These changes were facilitated in Canada by the 1996 shift in federal-provincial funding arrangements from the shared-cost Canada Assistance Plan (CAP) to the fixed-amount Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST). This change significantly reduced the funding available for provincial welfare programs, while also removing the CAP's requirements that social assistance be provided on the basis of need alone. At roughly the same time, the Canadian government made important changes to federal Employment Insurance (EI), including reducing eligibility and the length of benefits, forcing some unemployed workers to turn to provincial social assistance.

The CHST and the changes to EI, it is argued, encouraged the provinces to focus on reducing welfare expenditures by changing benefits and eligibility requirements (Bashevkin 2002; Boychuk 2006; Campeau 2005). The most dramatic of the Canadian changes occurred in Ontario, where benefit levels were reduced by 21.6 percent in 1996 and where a new requirement of mandatory work-for-welfare, or "workfare" was imposed. Other provinces also made social assistance benefits conditional on participation in job searches or training, or taking the first available job (Gorlick and Brethour 1998).

The impacts of these changes on the Canadian social assistance caseload are somewhat difficult to identify because they coincided with a period of economic and employment growth. The changes do seem to have corresponded with a reduction in the rates of social assistance use, but may also have contributed to a rising intensity or "depth" of poverty in Canada over the 1990s (Picot et al. 2003). Although a majority of those who left social assistance over the 1990s saw their economic conditions improve, it appears that for a sizeable minority, perhaps as large as 30 percent, economic well-being was lower after leaving welfare (Frenette and Picot 2003).

The changes to provincial welfare systems highlight a number of assumptions about the dynamics of social assistance use in Canada, and which are common to other liberal-democratic welfare states. For one, the policy focus on reducing "dependency" and on encouraging work effort would seem to indicate that welfare is generally a long-term phenomenon and that recipients have a tendency to remain on benefits unless required or forced to leave, or until they have acquired enough "human capital" or saleable skills that allow them to find well-paid work (Bane and Ellwood 1994). …

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