How Come Women Are So Poor? (If Canada Is Such a Great Place to Live)

By Brodsky, Gwen; Day, Shelagh | Herizons, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

How Come Women Are So Poor? (If Canada Is Such a Great Place to Live)


Brodsky, Gwen, Day, Shelagh, Herizons


It is no accident. The unravelling of Canada's social safety net has been a wholly ideological exercise, designed to shift Canadians' expectations and values, to convince us that smaller government is necessary and that a collective sense of responsibility for everyone's economic security, education and health is simply outmoded.

The unravelling can be traced back to February 1995 when, in legislation to implement the budget, Paul Martin introduced The Budget Implementation Act (BIA). The BIA repealed the Canada Assistance Plan Act (CAP) and replaced it with the Canadian Health and Social Transfer (CHST). In doing so, the federal government eliminated the conditions attached to social assistance spending; it ended 50-50 federal- provincial cost-sharing for social services; combined funds for health care, post-secondary education, social assistance and key social services into one block transfer; and drastically cut the total amount of the transfer to the provinces. This has lead to cuts across the country in key social programs and to a profound shift in the responsibilities of the federal, provincial and territorial governments for the economic and social wellbeing of Canadians. And women are reeling from the setbacks.

It is a source of national pride for most Canadians that, for more than 30 years, the federal government has played a central role in the provision of social programs by offering money to the provinces and attaching conditions to the transfer of funds. By exercising its spending power, the federal government ensured that key programs, like health care, post-secondary education, welfare and other social services were delivered, and that those programs met pan-Canadian standards of eligibility and quality.

The BIA changed all that. It allowed the federal government to drop conditions on the transfer of funds, except the standards for health care that are set out in the Canada Health Act. It continued the general trend of reducing federal spending on social programs. Provinces, meanwhile, have demanded more control over the social programs that they are increasingly responsible for funding and have cut programs, narrowed eligibility rules and reduced welfare rates.

This change marks a historic moment for women's rights in Canada one that is no less significant than the introduction of statutory prohibitions against sex discrimination in the 1970s or the constitutionalization of equality guarantees in the 1980s.

Under the cloak of the 1995 budget, the federal government made the most profound change in social policy and the most significant change in relations among Canadian governments since the 1950s. It changed the distribution of power and responsibility between federal and provincial governments, and consequently the shape of the Canadian nation.

At stake now is not just the repeal of the general entitlement to social assistance, further cuts to federal funding, and the loss of national standards but the threat of a race to the bottom--in social programs--all of which affect Canadian women.

For women, who tend to have lower incomes than men, are more vulnerable to domestic violence and are more likely to be caregivers for children and older people, the diminished commitment to social programs and national standards has serious consequences. Many women count on social assistance and social services such as child care and home care services to keep themselves and their families afloat. Cuts to these programs have increased women's social and economic vulnerability. The impact is more drastic for single mothers, older women, Aboriginal women, immigrant women, women of colour, and women with disabilities-who are among the poorest.

What this indicates is that economic policy and women's equality rights do not belong in watertight compartments; rather they are integrally connected.

The Low Down on Women's Poverty

Poverty cannot be dealt with unless the conditions that create it are addressed. …

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