Social Assistance Fraud and Zero Tolerance in Ontario, Canada

By Varma, Kim; Ward, Ashley | Canadian Review of Social Policy, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Social Assistance Fraud and Zero Tolerance in Ontario, Canada


Varma, Kim, Ward, Ashley, Canadian Review of Social Policy


Introduction

In the early 1990s in Ontario, a great amount of political and public attention was paid to social assistance fraud. Since this time, reforms to social assistance emphasizing work for welfare, stricter criteria for benefits, and intensified scrutiny for suspected cases of fraud have been put into practice, resulting in substantial decreases in caseloads and reduced allowances for recipients (Chan, 2012; Herd & Mitchell, 2003; Lightman, Herd, & Mitchell, 2008; Mosher, 2008; Mosher & Hermer, 2010; National Council on Welfare, 2006). Concerns about social assistance fraud1 have been particularly salient in Ontario, where, in the last decade, administrative penalties have been introduced in addition to criminal justice sanctions for fraud. In April of 1998, a 3-month period of ineligibility was introduced for a first conviction of social assistance fraud and 6 months ineligibility for a second conviction. Only three years later, the Conservative government implemented a lifetime ban on social assistance for anyone convicted of social assistance fraud. Following in December 2003, the Liberal government repealed the lifetime ban (s. 36 O. Reg. 134/98, Ontario Works Act, 1997, S.O. 1997, c. 25 as amended by O. Reg. 227/98, O. Reg. 48/00, and O. Reg. 456-03). There continues to be no period of social assistance ineligibility for those convicted of fraud.2

The current study examines social assistance fraud in Ontario through literature review and an exploration of official monthly case data over an 8-year period during which zero tolerance was introduced and repealed. With the aim of understanding the impact of this policy on fraud cases, a discussion of deterrence theory will follow, given the importance ascribed to deterrence-based responses to social assistance fraud by politicians and some professionals in the field. Additionally, an examination of the role of front-line workers' responses to zero tolerance will be considered in relation to how referral decisions may have been affected by this policy.

Creation of the 'Social Assistance Problem'

The construction of social assistance fraud as a widespread problem may be understood within the broader framework of neoliberal strategies of governance emergent in the past few decades (Chan, 2012). This approach has involved a downsizing of the state and reductions in 'unnecessary' social welfare expenditures to meet the challenges of global economic restructuring (Johnson, McBride, & Smith, 1994). This reduction, along with the 'law and order' politics characteristic of the last few decades, has resulted in a reconstitution of the social assistance recipient as a 'likely offender' and the political construction of an extensive 'fraud problem.' Discussions about social assistance reform have instituted a highly moralized redefinition of the recipient as either deserving or greedy (Broomer v. Ontario, 2003; Chan, 2012; Pratt & Valverde, 2001).

Moreover, the construction of social assistance fraud as a crime problem is central in legitimizing the need for state intervention, and increased crime control measures are deemed necessary due to the link between social assistance fraud and other 'threatening' and undeserving groups in society (Beckett, 1997). As Gustafson (2011) observes, the social and political construction of the social assistance fraud problem intersects with other subjects of anxiety for both the public and politicians, such as race, gender, class, maternity, and criminality, which impacts policy reforms. For instance, stereotypical beliefs about social assistance recipients have merged with discourses around undeserving parents and single mothers in particular (Carruthers, 1995; Chan, 2012; Chunn & Gavigan, 2004; Little & Morrison, 1999; Mayson, 1999). In justifying the provincial government's decision to remove a $37 monthly allowance for pregnant women receiving social assistance, Ontario's former Conservative government Premier Mike Harris proclaimed, ". …

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