Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Disincentives to Employment: Unreasonably Low Asset Levels

Unreasonably low asset levels are a problematic deterrent for Ontario Works recipients who want to pursue employment. Ontario Works sets maximum asset levels for recipients to determine how much monthly allowance they are to receive. For example, single adults are afforded a maximum asset level of $560 per month, while single adults with a lone child are afforded a maximum asset level of $1529 per month. These asset levels are set and adjusted by proof of necessities obtained from recipient’s receipts and include: pay stubs, hydro, water, and heating costs, bank account books and statements, fire insurance, rent or mortgage payments, income tax assessment or returns, and child care costs.

While monthly allowances are set to ensure that a recipient’s basic and immediate needs are covered, they do not allow any room for savings—an asset that Ontario Works recipients need if they are to successfully transition from social assistance to a job. Although existing asset levels cover current consumption, it is not enough, as there are a number of additional costs that a person has to take into account when transitioning into a job. These costs include the costs of a new wardrobe for the interview, transportation to interviews, additional child care for parents going through job interviews and an increase in phone costs to set up interviews. Without room for savings in the maximum assets level, Ontario Works recipients are afforded no assistance to assist with finding a job—a process that does cost money.

Ontario Works fails to recognize the instability of the transition that occurs when a person begins a new job. For example there is always a probationary period typically lasting 3 to 6 months whereby, should the job be terminated, the recently fired employee would need to fall back on a few months of savings while pursuing a new job. Also, since Ontario Works prepares recipients for low-skilled, low-paid labour only, these jobs are typically contract positions that could be terminated at any time at no fault of the employee. If there is not adequate savings in place before going into a new job, a person has no resources to fall back on should their job be terminated. Since Ontario works does not allow savings to be an asset, then individuals transitioning out of Ontario Works are afforded no opportunities to buffer transitional periods out of social assistance and between jobs with adequate resources.

What’s most oppressive about this predicament is that Ontario Works covers a recipient’s immediate consumption needs only. By not allowing for even a small fraction of the assets to include savings, recipients do not have the opportunity to participate in the work force ever the same way that individuals in the middle and upper class do. Since they are required to save and present receipts of all spending, including rent, utilities, food, clothing, and child care (a further oppressive and exploitative practice by Ontario Works), then recipients don’t have the option to even cut back on their basic necessities for the sake of savings, because cutting back on their spending would lower their allowance. What this means for Ontario Works recipients is that, while they have a greater incentive to work, they have a reduced incentive to save. This results in “a vow of poverty to maintain their eligibility for OW—which is surely counter-productive to the ultimate goal of reducing their reliance on welfare.”

Information about Ontario Works asset levels obtained from:

Region of Peel, Ontario Works in Peel: Your Responsibilities

Simcoe County Health and Social Services Home Page: Ontario Works Asset Levels

TD Economics Special Report: "From Welfare to Work in Ontario: Still the Road Less Travelled." September 8, 2005.

Disincentives to Employment: Facing the Glass Ceiling

Another barrier to employment for recipients of Ontario Works who are eager to enter the job market is the glass ceiling. Since individuals who enter Ontario Works are individuals who have proven immediate financial need, they are already oppressed as citizens in poverty. While the intention of Ontario Works is to provide training for jobs that will help recipients exit social assistance and support themselves with an income, Ontario Works fails to do so because the training and job opportunities provided are so poor that they provide recipients with basic skills that will only give them jobs that keep them in a very low income bracket, or below the poverty line.

Examples of the “job specific” training provided can be found on the Ontario Works section of the city of Kingston homepage. Education and job-specific skills for upgrading include:

Completing your Grade 12 diploma or equivalency;
Improving language skills;
Upgrading reading, math, and writing skills;
Training required for certain jobs such as basic computer skills, typing, forklift operations, personal support worker (PSW).
Furthermore, upon a search of the upcoming job-specific skills workshops, one will find that the only recent workshop offered is standard CPR/First Aid training. What does this mean for Ontario Works recipients who have dreams of learning job-specific skills to start a career when they leave social assistance? This means that they cannot do so because Ontario Works does not provide the skills and training at a post-secondary level of education that is required for one to learn the skills to pursue meaningful employment. Ontario Works recipients are provided education up to grade 12 only, which does nothing for recipients who were already in poverty because they could not afford a post-secondary education even though they were already high school graduates. While basic academic skills such as language, reading, math, and writing are required for all jobs, failure to advance beyond these skills towards training in jobs that require higher order thinking and problem solving oppresses recipients to be eligible only for the lowest paying jobs once they leave Ontario Works. Since Ontario works does not provide training at the post-secondary level, barely pays out enough for one’s own living expenses, and prepares recipients for jobs whereby they are not paid enough to even save for a post-secondary education, it traps recipients below the glass ceiling when they attempt to leave the program and apply for a job.

In a survey of former Ontario Works recipients in the city of Toronto , comparisons were made between their financial situation while on, and off Ontario Works. The average weekly rate of pay for Ontario Works recipients who had transitioned into the job market was $400, which was 30% below the average weekly rate of pay for employees in the city of Toronto . When reporting incomes, 92% of respondents reported and average income below Statistic’s Canada ’s 2001 Low income cut-off. When reflecting on job-related training, recipients had opportunities to work and receive education in the following fields: retail/sales, office worker, restaurant worker, trades worker/mechanic, with 15% identified as an obscure category of professional/manager. Clearly, Ontario Works participants are limited to basic employment training and are not afforded training in higher paying jobs that call for knowledge in fields of academia.

Following input from former Ontario Work’s recipients, the reality behind the intended advantages of the program, for recipients to leave social services and sustain their living expenses with employment is clear. The program is failing. Without meaningful post-secondary level training, and opportunities to enter jobs paying above the low-income cut-off, former recipients are trapped in low-pay work where they have no access to benefits, and no opportunities to save for an education to help them climb the career ladder. They are oppressed to find work only in low-paying jobs, whether as employees or as returnees to Ontario Works, and are unlikely to ever break through the glass ceiling in search of a meaningful, sustaining career.

Information about Ontario Works training found on the Ontario Works Section of the City of Kingston home page.

Information from former Ontario Works recipients found in: “After Ontario Works: A survey of people who left Ontario Works in Toronto in 2001.” Toronto Community & Neighbourhood Services, 2001.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Workfare as Othering

Participants in Workfare programs are often viewed as the “other”. What exactly does this mean? Well, “othering” is a term that refers to a type of discrimination that a group of individuals experiences when they are the minority group or are dominated by other groups. In the case of Workfare, participants of Workfare programs are othered because they enter into job roles in which employers, other employees, and the public sees them as not quite belonging, or not really a true fit in their work environment. The issue of othering in this context has a lot to do with the stigma attached to being on social assistance and how this stigma hurts those on social assistance in their everyday lives and the roles they attempt to fill.

Social assistance, and Workfare specifically, is a good idea with good intentions, but Workfare involves more than just an idea. When human beings are involved, opinions, thoughts, values, and beliefs are involved as well. This means that, in terms of Workfare, the idea itself may be great (let’s face it, in its simplest form, working-for-welfare is awesome; you work, you get paid for your work, everybody wins, right?) but the application of this idea in the real world may be less than great (Everybody wins? Wrong. There are many complex issues that come into play with an idea like Workfare, such as ability, eligibility, education, quality of work opportunities, individual differences, and that big one: “the future”). Although there is virtually no one idea in existence that each and every person on Earth agrees with, there are certain ideas that are more controversial, and Workfare seems to be one of them. A major flaw with Workfare is that it doesn’t take into account individual differences. What this means is that Workfare fails to recognize the unique and personal situations of Workfare participants, and tends to group workers all in one group. Generalizations like this never work, and in Workfare it is extremely detrimental to oversimplify the diversity in Workfare populations because without taking unique circumstances into account, a large number of Workfare participants are unfairly viewed by others. This unfair view is exactly what “othering” is; it’s the generalization of the Workfare participant population as people different from the rest of the working world. They’re different because they receive social assistance. They’re different because they are working in order to receive their welfare cheques. They’re different for countless reasons, but in order to really work, Workfare needs to recognize that we’re all unique individuals with unique needs. By categorizing Workfare participants as the “other” we’re perpetuating a discriminatory attitude that is hurtful, not helpful.

There is a quote that applies well to this idea of taking individual differences into consideration. The quote says: “Fair does not mean everyone getting the same thing; Fair means everyone getting what they need”. The most well-known stigma that surrounds social assistance recipients is the idea that they are lazy and looking for a free ride. Those that subscribe to this view see Workfare recipients as burdens to society who can’t find their own work, and may consider it unfair that Workfare participants have jobs found for them, whereas non-social assistance folks find their own work. It may even be deemed an unfair advantage that Workfare participants have jobs supplied for them. There seems to be some disagreement as to whether or not Workfare participants take jobs away from regular working individuals. Some sources claim that this does happen and others claim this is absolutely not the case. Whatever the fact is, there exists stigma that Workfare participants enjoy certain benefits that regular working individuals do not. Again, this generalizes the Workfare population and fails to recognize the particular hardships and unique circumstances that they may be experiencing day to day. Workfare participants are, in fact, not always getting what they need, as the quote above commands for fairness. Workfare participants are exempt from many job perks and rights that regular workers take for granted. This is unfair. While regular working individuals recognize their own day to day stresses and difficulties, they often fail to recognize those same stresses that affect Workfare participants. In order to be fair, working together to understand each other would be conducive to a state closer to what may be called “fair”.

A major benefit to working together to understand each other’s individual differences is a boost of employee morale. It’s true that Workfare policy may put a strain on employers, Workfare participants, and other employees as well. Other workers may relate to the above paragraph and may hold certain prejudices against and beliefs about Workfare participants that create a stressful, unpleasant, and perhaps even quarrelsome work environment for all involved. Educating workers, both “regular” and Workfare workers, about each other’s positions and situations may not necessarily lead to people liking each other, but understanding each other would allow for a more cooperative and sensible work environment.

Othering is never acceptable. Workfare is only one of many upon many examples of an “us-versus-them” mentality that exists in our world today. It is particularly poignant that a Workfare participant’s main source of oppression is oftentimes his or her own peers. Whether it is a fellow worker, a fellow female/male, a fellow parent, etc, Workfare participants’ peers are exceptionally misunderstanding of these workers. From our anti-oppressive standpoint, we can see that this is extremely troubling because it traps Workfare participants into that “other” position that is separate from the rest of society and from their so-called peers.

Jean Swanson leaves us with some food for thought in relation to resisting Workfare:
• Myths portray people on welfare as opting for a so-called life of ease on welfare instead of grinding away at jobs. In fact, life on welfare is usually desperate and the amount of money people get it only about a quarter to a half of the poverty line
• Myths charge that thousands of jobs go vacant while thousands lounge on welfare. In fact, there aren’t nearly enough jobs for all the unemployed
• Government officials and the media use a special language that blames poor people for the poor economy, and gives the impression that punitive policies are somehow really good for people on welfare
• Some working people, justifiably angry at falling wages and diminishing job security, turn unjustifiably on the poor instead of the wealthy who make economic decisions and could afford to pay more taxes
• We must fight workfare because it’s part of the competitive impoverishment of the global economy; because it’s a direct threat to the jobs and wages of those who are working; and because it won’t get anyone out of poverty

*Note: For an interesting video, visit:

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Impact of Workfare on Employers

Employers that employ workfare participants are a group that is very directly impacted by the workfare policy. There are plenty of features of the policy of workfare that generate stigma from all individuals involved in the carrying out of workfare. Not only does stigma exist around being a social assistance recipient, stigma also exists around being an employer that provides work for these individuals, as well as stigma around the quality of work that these individuals are capable of producing. Although some research has shown that some social assistance recipients may in fact embody the stereotypical role of the social assistance recipient, many sources turn a blind eye to the recipients who are actually hard workers and respect their work, employers, and the opportunity provided for them. Regardless, employers have faced difficulty in ignoring the stereotype of a typical social assistance recipient and the stigma carries on.

Employers that employ workfare participants have faced feelings of worry, doubt, and frustration in relation to their workfare workers. Deborah C. Washam, president and chief executive of a community home health care agency in Kansas City claims that, of more than eighty women she hired as part of a generous welfare-to-work program, fewer than twenty five remained on the job; many of the others apparently quit over perceived slights to their dignity: "I don't think they've had much exposure to structure in their lives....As single mothers, they are on their own and see themselves as authority figures. They won't take routine supervision at work." Apparently, many among those hired, although the best qualified of those screened, had problems including absenteeism, lack of discipline about work hours, poor reading and communicative skills, and open resentment when given direction. (New York Times, 1 Sept, 1996). This example clearly shows the doubt and frustration that one employer has experienced with her workfare participants. The stigma around workfare participants’ quality of work has perpetuated so much that employers often fail to truly examine the root causes of their difficulties. In this example, Washam neglected to look at the causes of workers’ absenteeism and other issues. It could be that personal issues such as child care, health, or transportation issues compromised their performance.

Employers benefit from workfare in that they are provided with cheap labour, but then they complain about the quality of this labour. What are ways in which to improve the quality of labour? Firstly, proper training and preparation would enable workfare recipients to learn, practice, and apply skills in the workplace that would produce a higher quality of work. This could potentially lead them to seek and find job opportunities in the future, and would leave them better off because they would be skilled. Secondly, providing workfare participants with the same benefits as other regular workers (such as the observance of statutory holidays and the freedom to start and/or join a union) could alleviate feelings of stress and frustration that workfare participants experience, therefore leading to higher quality of work. Third, paying a decent wage and maintaining motivation by providing incentives to work (such as bonuses) would encourage workers. This list could go on and on, but in the interest of space-saving, it will end here. The fact of the matter is that there are plenty of measures that could be taken in order to improve the quality of work that workfare participants produce. Employers are just not willing to put these measures into place, and would rather place the blame solely on workers. It is not enough that they are getting labour at the cheapest rate possible; they expect a better quality of work than is realistically possible under the terms of workfare. Taking the workers into consideration, working to improve their work conditions, and being understanding of their usually difficult circumstances are things that employers of workfare participants need to do in order to receive a quality of work that they will be satisfied with.

Relating to the previous paragraph, workfare participants are often treated differently than other regular workers are. Employers seem to be conflicted; they expect little from workfare participants because of the negative image they have of these workers, and yet they simultaneously expect very much from workfare participants, as is evident from their strong reactions to workers’ extenuating circumstances (such as child care issues which cause them to miss a day or work or to be late). Adopting a more consistent attitude towards workfare participants would create a better working environment and would likely promote better worker attitudes as well. Adopting a more humane and understanding attitude would surely promote better worker attitudes. Employers play a large role in the lack of success of workfare in Canada. The oppression that workfare participants experience by employers, which includes lesser rights, menial labour that does not properly train them and leaves them skill-less, etc. is hurtful to workers, employers, and workfare itself. It’s no wonder workfare hasn’t worked in Canada; a lot of things are lacking that could perhaps improve the success rate of workfare.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Increasing Hardships for Single Mothers

The everyday lives of single mothers on welfare have drastically worsened due to welfare reforms and the development of Workfare. In Ontario in 2004 the estimated welfare income (including basic assistance plus other benefits provided through the tax system, such as the federal tax benefit and GST credit) for a single employable person was 6,973 and for a single parent with one child was 14, 251, while at the same time the Statistics Canada Low Income Tax Cutoff (LICO) for a city with a population of 500,000 or more, for a single person, was 20,337 and for a family of two was 25, 319(National Council of Welfare, 2005). Clearly, welfare recipients are living in poverty. In Margaret Little’s study she explains that the women she has interviewed, who are trying to survive under the new workfare policies, have attempted suicide, reduced their food consumption, sold almost all their household furniture and been subjected to physical and sexual abuse.

For instance, research from the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine reveals that of the single mothers who used food banks, 70 percent had gone moderately or severely hungry in the past year and 57 percent had done so in the past 30 days. Another example of increased hardships comes from a survey of single mothers in Toronto and found 27 percent of them did not have telephone services some time during the last two years (Ontario Workfare Watch, “Broken Promises”, 1999). As Little outlines, without telephones mothers cannot reach emergency services, have a much harder time seeking employment (an obligation of Workfare) and are cut off from friends and family.

Women have also been subject to increased amounts of violence and sexual harassment partly due to stringent Workfare policies as well as welfare cuts. The 1990s Statistics Canada Violence Against Women Survey reveals that one in three women had experienced acts of violence by their partners. In addition, the vulnerability of poverty increases the extent to which women suffer from acts of violence. A study of low income mothers found that 50 percent had lived with a partner who had physically assaulted them. (Falkiner et. al. V Her Majesty the Queen, October 25, 1995). Little’s research illustrates that the level of harassment and violence in women’s lives has escalated since the welfare reform and introduction of Workfare.

As less and less women are qualifying for welfare and more women are specifically avoiding it because their childcare responsibilities are incompatible with Workfare, they are having to return to, or stay with, abusive partners. The Ontario Shelter Movement has reported that since the welfare reforms increasing numbers of women are returning to abusive partners in order to provide shelter, clothing and food for themselves and their children (Ontario Association of Internal and Transition Houses, 1997).

In addition, the exposure to sexual harassment has also increased. In Little’s interviews with single mothers she explains that many have complained that landlords have attempted to exchange sex for lower rents. One women explains “he [the landlord] told me that if I had sex with him he would take $150 a month for rent”. Another woman also explains a similar experience when an ex partner offered her $5 for a hug and more for sex – if she needed the money. Single mothers can no longer turn to social assistance as a means to escape oppressive relationships. Since Workfare has been introduced, single mothers are forced to avoid it, putting themselves at greater risk of harm and in greater situations of poverty.

Works Cited for last three blogs about single mothers:

Snyder, Linda. (2006). Workfare: Ten years of pickin’ on the poor. In A. Westhues (Ed.) Canadian social policy: Issues and perspectives (4th edition.; pp. 309-331) Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Mirchandani, Kiran and Chan, Wendy (2007). Criminalizing race, criminalizing poverty: Welfare fraud enforcement in Canada. Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing.

Evans, Patrician. (2001). Women and social welfare in Canada: Exploring the Connections. In J. Turner and F. Turner (Ed.) Canadian Social Welfare (4th ed.; pp. 140-153). Toronto: Pearson Education Canada Inc.

Little, Margaret. (2003). The Leaner Meaner Welfare Machine: The Ontario Conservative Government’s Ideological and Material Attack on Single Mothers. In D. Brock (Ed.) Making normal: Social regulation in Canada (pg. 235-258). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Just Another Excuse?

“Katrina recently left her violent boyfriend when she was seven months pregnant. She applied for welfare and was told that she was eligible provided she went to three job sites per day looking for work. She traipsed up and down the streets of her small town with swollen ankles inquiring about employment when she was obviously very pregnant and traumatized by the recent violence in her life. She suspects her baby was born a month early because of this stress”. (Margaret Little Interview 4, Greater Toronto Area, May 1998)

Under the Workfare policies single mothers are increasingly expected to conduct job searches which they can prove. What is involved in these job searches often varies. According to Margaret Littles’ research, some women she spoke with were required to do three searches a day, others up to ten. Some of these women were suppose to go door-to-door and obtain signatures from companies as proof that they were looking. Others were required to make telephone calls and record the responses and dates. Interviews with anti-poverty advocates explained that “inadequate job searches” are the most common reasons given for cutting people off welfare. However, issues of childcare and transportation are not taken into consideration.

This requirement is also based on the false premises that single mothers just need an incentive to find work. However, many studies illustrate that this is not the case. For example, the largest study of welfare recipients in Ontario found that three quarters of single mothers were already looking for work (Orntein, 1995). Another study reveals that 15 percent of single mothers were already doing volunteer work before Workfare was implemented (Ontario Workfare Watch, “Broken Promises”, 1999). These studies reveal that single mothers were already looking for work, so what was the point and where is the evidence of the need for this labour force attachment policy?

For some, Workfare programs have actually restricted their ability to complete education and training that would result in stable and higher paying employment. Under Workfare policies financial support for post secondary education was eliminated in 1996. Currently, Workfare training is short term only and aimed at immediate entrance into the labour market, regardless of low wages and limited security. According to Little’s study many have had to drop out of post secondary education as a result of this policy change. One mother explains that she was one course away from a healthcare aid certificate when she had to begin her community placement, “they’re hiring healthcare aids at the hospital where I volunteer (as part of my workfare community placement) but I’m one course away. It is very frustrating”

Is workfare just another obstacle or excuse to deny people welfare? There seems to be no evidence to support the idea that people are poor because they are too lazy to find work. Could it be that workfare was just another way to recreate the poor, keeping a supply of people that are forced to work the jobs that no else wants?

Gender Blind Policy?

Having a “gender blind” policy such as Workfare may at first usher to mind images and notions of equality, however, a gender blind stance often ignores the different contexts and barriers that shape the lives of women and can work to reinforce inequality and economic dependency. While the role of women as care takers is a social construct, the consequences of this social construct is still very alive today. In 1996 the majority (61%) of Canadian single mothers and their children were living in poverty (National Council of Welfare, 1998). Some of the reasons accounting for this may be the lack of decent employment, lack of childcare, and the increasingly stringent welfare policies such as workfare. In 1997, women represented 55 percent of the social assistance caseload (National Council of Welfare, 1998).

In 1920 when welfare for single mothers was introduced their responsibility as the primary caretakers of their children was acknowledged. Single mothers were therefore not required to look for fulltime work. However, with the welfare reforms and introduction of Workfare, the category of single mothers was wiped clear. As a result, according to Workfare policy, single mothers as well as fathers with school aged children are expected to participate in the workforce to the same extent as single women and men. Single mothers are viewed as though they have no dependents, creating increased burdens for these families. There is also no provision of childcare to those that have to participate in Workfare which results in further economic hardship. For instance, one mother in Ontario explains having to pay $40 per week out of her welfare cheque to finance her own childcare while she participated in workfare (Ontario Workfare Watch, “Broken promises”, 1999)

A policy cannot turn a blind eye to gender differences, claiming equality. While it can be seen as a good thing that policy is rejecting an essentialist identity of women, at the same time it cannot ignore the authority of experience. Women are still more likely to be taking on care giving roles at the same time as economic labour roles, and most often it is single mothers that are suffering from poverty as the previous statistic illustrated.

Women experience increased structural barriers in the labour market through occupational and wage discrimination (1999 Statistics Canada showed, women were paid 80 cents for every dollar earned by men) as well as the constraints related to their increased expectations with regards to childcare and household responsibilities. These disadvantages are magnified when women are the only providers in their families. Turning a blind eye to the differential affects of poor women, and particularly poor women of colour exacerbates their poverty.

Since racial and sexist oppression is intrinsically connected to the disenfranchisement of the poor through current and historical process of patriarchy, colonialism and capitalism, workfare is not just an attack on the poor, but an attack on women and people of colour. Resent research by Christensen illustrates that discrimination in employment keeps non-white workers in unstable and low wage employment and as a result they are more likely to be in need of social assistance and therefore subjected to Workfare measures. These Workfare measures ignore gender and racial discrimination, cementing marginalized individuals in inadequate labour market positions. A specific example of this includes how immigrant women are disadvantaged right from their entrance into Canada. The application process requires families to designate a principal applicant and others as dependents. These dependents are less likely to receive language training and other resources. This gender blind policy seems to be an excuse to turn a blind eye to the differential experiences of those under Workfare.

Workfare's Impact on Workfare Participants

This blog post examines how the policy of Workfare has impacted the lives of Workfare recipients. Workfare recipients in Canada have experienced many instances of not being covered by standard labour codes. These include the inability to join unions, having no rights to minimum wage, not being able to take statutory holidays off, and having no rights to rest periods or vacations. Increased poverty is also an issue with people receiving social assistance and participating in Workfare. Research has shown that social assistance recipients’ income levels are well below the Low Income Cut Offs (LICOs) established by Statistics Canada. In relation to other blogs that discuss the impact of workfare on single mothers, it is also important to note that single parents that were social assistance recipients were deducted for the Child Tax Benefit, which put them even further behind in terms of financial well-being. The amounts provided for most child care subsidies were generally insufficient to cover real costs. Clearly, workfare was ill-prepared to provide an upright working experience for participants.

Cost restraints only enable a very short preparation for the work force. Inadequate training and preparation leaves workfare participants poorly equipped to take on the real work force and handle jobs in the “real world”. Without the training, encouragement, skill, and confidence to take on real jobs in the real work force, workfare participants are not suitably prepared and able to handle “real” work. How are we to argue that workfare really prepares its participants for work when taking the time to properly train them for future work is considered superfluous and redundant?

Although workfare has reduced cost to the government by reducing the number of people receiving social assistance in some provinces, there is a question of what exactly happens to these former social assistance recipients. They may not be “costing” the government social assistance anymore, but many of these people may have turned to homelessness or other types of inadequate living conditions after ceasing to receive social assistance. Is it really helping people to supposedly train and prepare them for real work, then to discontinue their receipt of social assistance, only to leave them struggling to survive? If one looks at the numbers alone, workfare may appear to be useful and even successful, however by taking a more qualitative look at recipients themselves, we can see that workfare doesn’t help as much as it should if it leaves people homeless, skill-less, without confidence and competence, and without motivation.

Speaking to that last point of lack of motivation, it is important to discuss the serious implications of the absence of motivation in workfare participants. To clarify, I am by no means generalizing anyone in any way. There may be many motivated workfare participants who learned valuable skills and gained confidence in their ability to fulfill future work roles. However, again I say that I am not making generalizations, and we cannot make the generalization that workfare works in all instances. If workfare participants are not properly equipped for work, as they ideally should be by workfare practices, they will lack the confidence and motivation to work. This lack of motivation perpetuates people’s negative views of welfare and workfare recipients because it reinforces society’s view that these individuals are not motivated to work. Whether workfare participants are actively looking for work or passively taking what comes to them and living day to day, if motivation is absent quality of work will be absent as well.

Many worries and negative feelings accompany being a welfare recipient or workfare participant. Mirchandani and Chan interviewed social assistance recipients about their feelings about social assistance. Common feelings reported included depression, shame, humiliation, and denigration. Some interesting quotations from recipients about the individuals’ feelings about social assistance included:

“It is a very impersonal process. You go in and you feel like utter crap first of all. It is very demoralizing. I don't care who says, it is very demoralizing to be on social assistance."

“It’s not a life to be on assistance…believe me. Every end of the month my heart is beating. Am I going to get my cheque? Is my cheque going to be suspended and for no reason?”

“There is a lot of not so good things, which are, you know, the harassment, the needing to give up every aspect of your life, every dignified thing that you don’t have to give up in your normal life if you weren't on assistance. Just the way that you are treated as not a human being but as a number”

How does workfare impact workfare participants? Above we looked at how workfare participants lived under the LICO before, during, and after participation in workfare; the denial of things that most workers take for granted such as holidays and having the option to create and/or join a union; the poor quality of job training and preparation offered by workfare; and the lack of motivation of workfare participants. It also doesn’t help that jobs in workfare are usually short-term and often demeaning. It is common knowledge that there is a stigma around receiving social assistance. Welfare recipients are often seen as lazy and a burden to society. Although workfare participants may be considered a step up from this because they are working for welfare assistance, a stigma still exists. This stigma can generate feelings of shame and inadequacy on the part of workfare participants. Shame is another factor that can contribute to lack of motivation in these situations. It is pertinent to recognize the importance of the emotions and self-worth that workfare participants experience because this can have a bearing on their quality of work and their enthusiasm about workfare. As social workers examining workfare from an anti-oppressive lens, we recognize that workfare oppresses and marginalizes workfare participants in many ways, as listed above, and that oppression causes workfare to fail. Maybe if these sources of oppression were ameliorated workfare would prove more successful, but there would be much work to be done.

*Quotes taken from: Mirchandani, K. & Chan, W. (2007). Criminalizing race, criminalizing povery: Welfare fraud enforcement in Canada. Fenwood Publishing: Blackpoint, Nova Scotia.

Disincentives to Employment: Oppressing Recipients Trying to Transition into the Work Force.

Ontario Works policies put disincentives to work in place thereby oppressing recipients of Ontario Works who are trying to leave the system. While it would seem that a disincentive to employment should make those in need of income attracted to Ontario Works, recipients of Ontario Works are oppressed when they face disincentives to employment because inadequate monthly allowances for work already place a disincentive to remain within the program. The disincentive to remain in the program faced by recipients makes employment more attractive, yet punitive measures in place within Ontario Works prevent them from making the full transition into the work force they need to make in order to get off social assistance.

One disincentive that makes the transition into the work force less appealing is the rather immediate loss of the Ontario Works Health Benefit. Prior to 2005, recipients of Ontario Works who left the program would lose their health benefits immediately. After 2005, a small extension period was added, with a minimum of 6 months of coverage up to a maximum of 12 months. This extension period is however inadequate, as it does not reflect the amount of time that it takes former recipients of social assistance to find more favourable employment that offers a health plan. Since Ontario Works recipients participate in low-skilled labour, it takes years of additional employment training for them to find meaningful work.

Under the Work Incentive Program of 1979, recipients making the transition into the work force were provided a 2 & ½ year transition period, giving them time to transition from the low-skilled labour they entered the job market into to more desirable jobs offering a health plan. Unfortunately, the continued retraction of funds for social assistance which had the most felt impact in 1995 reflects in the inadequate supports for a transition period within Ontario Works, thereby perpetuating disincentives to enter the work force for recipients that truly are actively seeking employment.

The retraction of funds has also impacted dental coverage, which, when in place for existing recipients, “falls short” of their needs. While benefits for children and adults with disabilities are mandatory, benefits for non-disabled adults are “permissive” with the final decision being made by municipalities. When non-disabled adults ARE permitted dental coverage, it is inadequate. The dental benefits for non-disabled adults does not offer much of the restorative dental care that they are in need of--care of a much needed cosmetic value (i.e dentures, surgery to replace a lost tooth) for many recipients that would help them with the interview process when they do seek employment.

The failure of Ontario Works to provide adequate dental care for existing recipients, and an adequate extension period on health care for transitioning recipients makes entry into the work force impossible. Inadequate coverage during transition oppresses recipients of Ontario Works who want to find jobs because the program already sets them up for immediate participation in unskilled, low-paid labour with no health coverage in place. Without an adequate transition period, recipients who attempt to enter the labour force who do not find jobs with health coverage before their transition period is up become attracted to Ontario Works because they cannot afford to work in under-paid jobs without health coverage. Individuals who fall into this trap are then forced to be oppressed by the inadequate pay offered by Ontario Works because they cannot escape a program that has no mechanisms in place to help them ensure their basic needs are covered while in transition.

Information about Ontario Works health coverage obtained from:

Income Security Strategies for Working-Aged Adult. St. Christopher House. June, 2004.

TD Economics Special Report: "From Welfare to Work in Ontario : Still the Road Less Travelled." September 8, 2005.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Other Points of View on Workfare

It's understandable why companies may not want to be involved in workfare, and I don't believe it is a stance that denotes ignorance or indifference. As a manager, one of the most salient factors to maintain in the company is efficiency; the efficiency of all areas. This ensures that productivity is never compromised and that the directives are moving forward smoothly, and therefore, operating at full capacity. For example, let's say you've got a manufacturing company called Electro Ltd., that produces stationary products such as envelopes, pencils, and printing paper. As the manager, you'd want to ensure that the factory always has enough workers on each shift. What if you've got a worker who is constantly late, absent, or who does not follow the job objectives. I would think efficiency would be effected.

Under no circumstances does this example fit every situation, nor does it mean that all people on welfare/workfare have issues with chronic lateness or absenteeism. However, taking account "the manager's" opinion, these are the ideas that come out of it. A manager may think: "If there are absolutely NO jobs out there, then how is workfare going to work in any event?" If there ARE jobs then there is a high probability that many of those on welfare COULD find a job if he or she tried. Thus, a manger's logic may dictate that perhaps many people who are on welfare don't want to work. So it follows that he or she would be quite hesitant to hire someone from the Workfare program.

This is only one opinion. Approximately 12 years ago the Social Services Department of the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton (RMOC) conducted a survey on the Workfare system. Ultimately, they recommended to the nation's capital that using the Workfare system was not in their best interest. The information compiled indicated several basic assumptions regarding those on Welfare; that they don't really want to work and could if they looked for a job, that many ARE working and therefore frauding the system, and that workfare improves the abilities of it's recipients. RMOC found that the cost of implementing Workfare programs was "horrendous," and that in actuality, the recipients of the program were not more skilled than when they entered and were no closer to "self-sufficiency." Indeed, as the purveyors of this study concluded: "Very few workfare participants are given work that involves meaningful training, and only a small percentage of those who complete such programs find paying jobs." The main purpose of Workfare, RMOC says, is to "provide a pool of cheap labour for employers rather than to help those on welfare or reduce welfare costs."

Whether this is true or not, is, as they say, a matter of opinion. Many employers likely found Workfare to be an unreliable system of finding potential employees. People who were down and out and needing help probably found it unreliable too! RMOC proposed a number of alternatives that included "a program of economic incentives." This program offered "salary subsidies to employers to supplement the minimum wage on condition that those on workfare getting such jobs also receive training, skills upgrading, counseling, and follow-up support."

Friday, October 17, 2008

Unequal Distribution of Wealth

In addition to the many barriers to employment that individuals participating in workfare face, they also face dire economic barriers due to unequal distribution of wealth. Although the idea of workfare was originally pitched as a strategy to help the unemployed enter the workforce, it is primarily a strategy for protecting income rates of the upper-class. Bringing all adults who are eligible to work in the workforce ensures the “long term health and vitality of Canada’s income security system.” This strategy therefore ensures the security of a free market where the incomes of individuals in the upper class are protected by the contributions of underpaid workers to the free market. Not only are underpaid workers in the workfare system less likely to find upward mobility due to the barriers to employment that workfare perpetuates, but they have also felt the burden of the “poverty gap” due to the effect that inflation has had on social assistance.

As a result of inflation from 1995 when Ontario Works replaced welfare to ten years later in 2005, individuals on social assistance received significantly fewer benefits as the years passed. Over this ten year period, there was a 35% decrease in the average benefits that workfare participants received. Not only is it unfair to have inflation result in such punitive measures on those in need of social assistance while incomes of the upper-class increase, the original cuts to benefits during the 1995 switch from welfare to Ontario Works were deeply felt by those in need of the service. In order to increase the incentive to find paid employment, the Government of Ontario cut workfare benefits by 21.6%, making it more difficult for people to get on an Ontario Works List, and making it more difficult to people on Ontario Works to get by without seeking outside employment. For example, before the 1995 Ontario Works Reform, single adults received a maximum monthly allowance of $663 which dropped to $520 after the reform. For lone parents with one child under 12, the pre-reform monthly allowance was $1,221. Post-reform, $957 was the monthly allowance that these lone parents received. Although an additional monthly income from another job would help Ontario Works recipients, seeking outside employment is unfortunately not an option for these recipients, as there are disincentives to combining adequate pay with the menial assistance that Ontario Works recipients receive.

The most striking disincentive that Ontario Works recipients face to entering the workforce is outrageously high tax claw backs. As of 2005, a two year punitive measure was in place, permitting individuals who needed to supplement their Ontario Works benefits with additional income little access to their hard-earned dollars. This punitive measure allowed Ontario Works recipients to have a “taste” of their income over a two year period in order to encourage full participation in the labour market soon, while warning them that they could not reap the “benefits” of Ontario Works assistance plus additional income from low-paid labour. For example, if an Ontario Works participant ever supplemented their benefits with income from another job, then they would face a 75% claw back on their income for taxes over the first 12 months. If they continued to work without leaving the program for an additional 12 months, then they would be subject to an 85% claw back rate. If Ontario works participants ever received additional income for a third consecutive year, then they became trapped in the system, facing a 100% claw back rate on the additional income that was never sufficient enough for them to exit the program in the first place.

Since Ontario Works participants face so many disincentives to enter the workforce due primarily to the barriers to employment that the program perpetuates, and punitive claw backs to income while participants attempt to transition away from the program, it would seem that the objective of the program to encourage labour market participation among the unemployed has failed. The alternative objective of the program to protect the free market on the other hand has so far succeeded, as barriers to employment, and inadequate benefits coupled with claw backs from employment related sources of income has protected the free market, elevating incomes for those in the upper class while perpetuating the unequal distribution of wealth.

Information about Ontario works benefits and tax rates obtained from the TD Economics Special Report: "From Welfare to Work in Ontario: Still the Road Less Travelled." September 8, 2005.

A Workfare Level of Responsibility

Workfare is clearly a governmental response to the people who called for assistance; assistance during times of financial hardship. That doesn't necessarily mean that the response given is going to be a good one. As well, sometimes it's the implementation of that response that is weak or lacking in thoughtfulness.

If you have mothers who are out of work and are struggling to make ends meet, how can the Workfare program expect them to take jobs without helping them with baby-sitting services for their children? Thus, it seems, the Workfare program was bound to fail since its inception. I am sure there are plenty of examples of a government institution implementing a policy to address the needs of the people, and doing so in a "haphazard" manner.

I'd like to take a look at different points of view in this debate. One side displays the idea that Workfare targets "working class populations" and constructs "them" as "non-working poor people." The other side staunchly maintains the idea that, no matter how brazen and ill-conceived, it was an attempt to get away from welfare which "drained away" taxpayer dollars. Research is readily available that displays the ways in which countries envision and ultimately create these types of policies. Examining a wide range of policies in Northern Europe and the U.S., and the subsequent public responses, there is a clear position which invokes resentment for allegedly boxing vast amounts of "non-working citizens" out of Social Security (these same people are then left to what I like to call 'Welfare/Workfare," which offers low level programs in exchange for income).

In Canada, the same type of "process" clearly took shape. Once elected, the provincial government under Mike Harris began to re-acclimate itself after the deficit that was created by the previous government under Bob Rae. As a result, social assistance rates were slashed by 22 per cent. Even here, opposing points of view are readily visible. On the one hand, the "government stated that too many people were taking advantage of the program, and that it acted as a disincentive for seeking employment." On the other hand, "critics argued that the cuts were too dramatic, and increased the hardship of Ontario's poorest residents." What did all this culminate in? Ontario Works, a program which attempted to take able-bodied citizens and reintroduce them to the workforce by placing them in training and/or job placements (the program was altered dramatically after Mike Harris' cabinet left office).

Ah, different points of view. The benchmark of free speech in Canada.

Policies in Canada aside, one can easily forget the institutions that were involved in creating workfare (the provincial government) when confronted with how passionate these points of view can be. A writer for CBC News I'll refer to as "Darla," discussed the backlash the Workfare program created when she said: "Workfare is a violation of human rights. It is a violation of international covenants that Canada has signed. It creates an under-class of workers who are exempt from minimum wage laws and labour standards. In fact, workfare is indentured labour, one step from slavery. That's why the churches and every other organization that seriously supports human rights have refused to support or participate in workfare."

But...the article that Ms. Darla wrote garnered a considerable response in itself. A respondent I'll refer to as "Northstar" says: "You make it sound inhumane to force people to work in exchange for social support. Would it not be even more inhumane to condition the welfare recipient to accept their low position in life, and thus create successive generations of social sponges that can never develop a self sufficient spirit? I do believe that Canadians want a caring society, but why must society be "the government"? Why delegate the social responsibility to such an entity? The people, the church, and the family should take on this support role; not the central government. And if that means making the welfare recipient work, so be it. This could be the necessary incentive needed to reach self sufficiency."

"Quicksilver" states: "If only we could take your insight on the workfare situation and apply it to every issue. You're absolutely right: HOW DARE WE SUGGEST THAT PEOPLE WORK IN ORDER TO BE PAID? How dare our government suggest that unemployed people who are being supported by other working people in society should have to do anything that benefits society in return for compensation?"

Workfare is a controversial subject, on both sides. It's good that there are people out there who want to deconstruct the principles we use to form policies so as to see how our thinking into their construction works. I wonder how far we could get if we took a number of thinkers from both sides and plunked them down in the same "think tank." Maybe we'd solve the problem of unemployment...maybe not.

~ Information on European & Canadian Workfare policies taken from the writings of Nanna Kildal
~ Quotes from "Darla," "Northstar," and "Quicksilver" taken from CBC News Online

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Critique of How Workfare is Meant to Combat Poverty

In Canada and specifically Ontario, the current sentiment among federal and provincial governments asserts that the provision of welfare results in recipient dependency. This dependency in turn perpetuates poverty because of the disincentives it offers to find employment. The dominant viewpoint is that people are poor because they do not have a job, therefore if they are encouraged to enter the labour market this will pull them out of poverty. The recent literature on the issue of labour force exclusion indicates that there are two types of workfare programs. This includes the Labour-Force Attachment (LFA) model as well as the Human Capital Development (HCD) model.

The LFA model favours low cost solutions in which any employment is better than welfare provision. This model is designed to move people off welfare, regardless of whether job entry is at minimum wage. The goal is to force an attachment of the poor to the labour market, whether or not this may perpetuate their continued impoverishment. The LFA model is the defining perspective behind Workfare in Ontario. This approach illustrates the shift in focus from government responsibility to provide for the needs of those without other options, to a focus on the responsibility of individuals to find work regardless of structural inequalities.

The HCD model, which I view as a step up from the previous, involves high-cost job training and education with a goal for job entry above the minimum wage mark. However, the economist James K. Galbraith argues that while this model may be more beneficial, it still ignores the root of income inequality as a consequence of structural inequalities, the new global market and monopoly power.

Why do these models acknowledge that poverty results from the lack of decent employment and yet they continue to place blame on individual attributes? Garson Hunter asks, “Should it not be argued that it is the labour market that creates the disincentives to employment and that the labour market needs to change to create meaningful employment, unionized workplaces, decent wages, and decent jobs?”

What seems to have been happening in the case of the Workfare policy, is the forging of a strange relationship between fiscal conservatives and social agencies/reformers. The shift in ideology previously explored may explain this relationship and the current prevalence of a rights based approach as opposed to the previous needs based approach. The idea is to offer fewer services and more rights to the poor. These rights include entrance into the labour market through force or change of individual attributes. However, this seems to have taken on the position of neglect. This approach ignores the progress that was made to shift deterministic views such as the civil rights movement, the fall of the eugenics movement etc. The focus has now been placed directly on changing the individual side of the individual-environment process of socialization.

Whether or not it is an immediate policy possibility to focus on the root cause of poverty (structural inequalities, which will also be covered further in future blogs), this contextual nature should at least be acknowledged. This would lessen the individualization of welfare recipients, shifting the spotlight from an attempt to uncover so called deviant value systems which allow for laziness (in reference to the LFA model) and personal responsibility for educational and skill deficiency ( in reference to the HCD model) and towards the recognition of structural causes of poverty.

Barriers to Employment

Workfare works under the assumption that every person receiving government assistance is able to work for this assistance. However, workfare in Canada has met with more than one barrier to employment. There are several groups of people who, for one reason or another, cannot work and therefore are not able to survive in a workfare situation. For example, primary caregivers that have one or more young children at home may be physically able to work, but they cannot work because of the children that they need to care for. Having a young child is a major barrier to employment that many individuals face and therefore it is a critically important factor that programs like workfare need to consider. Canada considers single parents with dependent children employable depending on the child’s age. British Columbia sets that age at seven years; Manitoba at six years; Quebec at five years; Ontario at “pre-school” age; Saskatchewan, the Yukon, and Newfoundland set the age at two years; Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island set it at one year; and Alberta sets the youngest age at six months. Regardless of what age a province decides the child should be, it is obvious that all are in agreement that there is a critical time at the beginning of a child’s life during which the child needs his or her primary caregiver.

Another group facing a barrier to employment is Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people make up one of the fastest-growing segments of the Canadian population, increasing at almost twice the national average, and they represent an increasingly educated, readily available workforce, eager to take on an active role in Canada’s economy. However, despite the unique and diverse skills that the Aboriginal population has to offer, they are facing lower workforce participation and higher unemployment. What does this mean for workfare? Well, Aboriginal people face many barriers in their lives, not just in employment opportunities. They have struggled so much throughout history to maintain their identities as Aboriginal people, hold on to their land, and be considered equals with the rest of mainstream Canadian society. Able-bodied Aboriginal people are willing and able to work, however they face the issue of being forced to conceal their identities in order to “fit in” with society. The inequalities that they have faced and continue to face are a barrier to fair and equal employment.

Minority groups are confronted with issues of inequality and oppression as well. Racial and cultural minorities that are employed are very often placed in very menial jobs because of language or cultural barriers. Some of us may shrug this off and think “well if they don’t know the language, then there’s not much else we can do for them”. This is problematic for several reasons. Firstly, this statement creates an “us-versus-them” mentality in relation to minority groups. Canada prides itself on being multicultural and embracing of various groups, but by perpetuating minority groups as the “other”, we are only furthering the problem by refusing to work with minorities to help them learn English, and by judging them. Secondly, the inability to speak English does not necessarily mean the individual has no skills. We all have something unique to bring to the table, and while communication may be tricky with someone who does not speak English in Canada, this is not to say that they are only good enough to do unskilled labour. Third, from a social work and anti-oppressive perspective, this kind of attitude is a large part of what keeps minority groups as minority groups. We need to work together as a whole rather than consistently picking out individuals and groups and separating them from each other.

An important point to note relates to individuals who only have unskilled labour experience. An individual with strictly that kind of work experience creates their resume to hand out to perspective employers with the hopes of receiving a better job, but they are trapped by this experience. A resume that lists menial labour experience only is most likely to generate interest from other companies that offer similar types of jobs. This is a vicious cycle. In order to truly benefit individuals who may not have the type of skills that typical Canadian jobs require, it would be a good idea to offer jobs that require and teach skills. This is not to say that these jobs should pay huge salaries, and that is not entirely the point in this instance. The learning of valuable skills would be an effective place for people to start, because this would allow them the opportunities to move up in the world rather than persisting at the lowest level of employment. This relates to the Human Capital Development Model discussed in a previous post, which focuses on job training and education in order to help individuals enter the job market at above the minimum wage mark and with skills.

Many barriers to employment exist today, as discussed above. In addition, it is still the sad reality in some instances that prejudices such as sexism, classism, homophobia, and racism all inhibit certain groups of people from becoming employed. Mental and physical disabilities are also barriers to physical labour. There are countless barriers to employment in place today that are far too numerous to examine in this blog posting. This is just a small dip into the vast pool of issues that prevent some individuals from being eligible and able to work, to get our minds thinking about issues that may or may not always be so obvious at an initial glance.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Check it Out!!

If you are interested in the topic of workfare check out this video! It is based in New York but the people in Ontario are facing the same sort of policy.

"A DAY'S WORK, A DAY'S PAY follows three welfare recipients in New York City from 1997 to 2000 as they participate in the largest welfare-to-work program in the nation. When forced to work at city jobs for well below the prevailing wage and deprived of the chance to go to school, these individuals decide to fight back, demanding programs that will actually help them move off of welfare and into jobs." For more information check out their website.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Examining Workfare through an Anti-Oppressive Lens

I hope the info contained in this blog has served you well in that it has assisted in answering some of your questions; perhaps even sparked some new ones. It is an important issue as it affects people in every corner of our country. I think about what my teacher relayed to my colleagues and me the other day. She was speaking about Workfare and how it can be viewed through various theoretical frameworks: Anti-Oppressive Theory (most predominantly), Feminist theory, Psychoanalytic, and others. Through an Anti-Oppressive lens, she was saying, the issue has much to do with poverty. So it follows that Workfare is greatly influenced by our "governing institutions" and the ways in which they think, personally and collectively, because it is they who form our policies.

Applying this point through a specific theory can be done with the use of N. Thompson's "PCS Model," which looks at the interlocking systems involved in how oppression operates. The personal system (P), as Thompson categorizes it, focuses on a person's individual principles and beliefs. It is strongly connected to the two remaining systems and according to the model is posted at the core. Collective beliefs and ideas of society constitute the second level, the cultural system (C). These shared ideas and principles can ultimately form a consensus and play a part in influencing how policies are established. Lastly, the structural system (S) is made up of our institutions and essentially makes oppression possible as these bodies support the two previous systems. Large corporations, the media, the federal and provincial governments as well as religious groups, for example, perpetuate dominant views.

Through this framework, it is quite reasonable to assume that oppressive practices such as workfare begin with the mindset in individuals that people are lazy, unskilled, and "don't want to do anything." When these same people come together, such as when they form a government (Conservative Party of Canada, Liberal Party of Canada, etc.), the beliefs start to become hardened and strong. Beliefs around workfare then become legitimated when policies are made to "help" those in need. It's a tough process to get your head around, as it seems to imply the idea that people are undeserving of assistance when they are out of work ~ unless they "earn it" through jobs given to them by our governing institutions.

However, on a more personal note, I believe there is another element to speak to. I feel in life that there are always two sides to every story, and thus, to imply that Workfare is SOLELY a degrading and oppressive practice doesn't speak to the complexity of the issue. When people are out of work, should they receive assistance in getting back on their feet? Absolutely. But shouldn't there also be an ending to that assistance so that these same people can get on with their lives and support themselves? It COULD be said that to allow someone to receive welfare assistance indefinitely is rather degrading, because it implies that "they're no good," or that they have no abilities. I feel that there are severe weaknesses to the Workfare policy, outlined in the reasons I've cited. Yet I also think that there are merits. Those who created Workfare or who agree with its inception are not necessarily "heartless." What 'they' want is to help people who are down and out, for whatever reason, to get back to a state where they can support themselves ~ maybe even to the point where there is less of a chance that he or she will be in that same situation again.

When Workfare was first established by the Conservative Party of Canada, it was legitimated out of response to taxpayers who were frustrated with their money going to people who they felt were "sitting at home and not doing anything to remedy their situation." This may not be a sound opinion, but it seems to be what people were feeling (given that most families in Canada work HARD for their wages, I think I can understand their point of view). Therefore, it has validity because this is the belief that Canadians were struggling with. Workfare was the reaction, or the fall-out, depending on how you look at it.

Bringing all this together, I feel you can most certainly look at both sides of the issue through the lens of Thompson's PCS ~ Anti-Oppressive model. A person develops an opinion and then shares it with others who are like-minded. The third step equates to a massive organization of powers "reacting" due to the pressure of the people. It is my hope that we can look at the complexity of the issue by examining ALL angles.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Workfare in Canada

As of 1995, Canadian provinces have been adopting workfare policies for social assistance such as Ontario Works. In May of 1998, The Ontario Works Act and Regulations was born. Ontario Works aims to help "employable people find work and become independent of social assistance." People who are already receiving social assistance who meet the Ontario Works requirements are deemed employable, and must participate in order to continue to receive assistance. They must complete a 'Participation Agreement', in which they list activities that they will agree to take part in or complete. Such activities include: "job searching, attending a job-finding club or other job training, completing a Community Placement, enrolling in Employment Placement, completing their education or starting their own business."

Canadian Workfare policies such as Ontario Works were created under a neo-conservative lens emphasizing "work ethic" and "family values." This neo-conservative lens values individualism and inequality as an "essential incentive for innovation and effort." The real agenda for neo-conservatives who protect these values is to protect trade and the free market. Workfare polices exist in Canada under the guise that individuals in need of social assistance have a chance to obtain upward mobility with the dual financial and employment assistance plan that workfare offers. Statistics collected over the last ten years of existing workfare practice in Canada have painted a much more grim picture.

Firstly, caseloads are down of individuals receiving workfare, likely because the criteria for workfare assistance are more restrictive than those for welfare. Due to the changing economy, individuals leaving workfare are worse off than those who received welfare assistance. Individuals who exit workfare programs are more likely to live in poverty compared to individuals who exit welfare assistance. There are an increasing number of restrictive and exploitative practices in workfare as well that de-humanize the integrity of workfare recipients. These practices include mandatory literacy and drug testing for teen mothers through the LEAP (Learning, Earning, and Parenting) program, home inspections in the Ontario Works program to ensure recipient compliance, and inadequate child support and care for workfare parents which increases the risk of child poverty. Recipients who are eligible for workfare on average receive less financial assistance than those who were once eligible for welfare and are less likely to gain meaningful employment while working within the program.

It is important to stress again that workfare polices exist in Canada under the guise that individuals in need of social assistance have a chance to obtain upward mobility because they are receiving financial assistance while being taught the "value of work." The inadequate pay and poor working conditions that workfare subjects those in need of social assistance to makes workfare an oppressive practice against the poor.

Information about Ontario works obtained from:

Lanark County

Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services

Information about Workfare in Canada obtained from:

Snyder, Linda (2006). Workfare: Ten years of pickin' on the poor. In Westhues, A. (Ed.) (2006). Canadian social policy: Issues and perspectives. Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Workfare Ideology

Recent welfare policies including that of Ontario Works, Workfare policy are central to the ideological debate concerning the appropriate role of the state in the economy. The ideological views of the states role has shifted over time from a view of minimal state interference, to maximum state involvement of the Keynesian policies and recently back towards a minimalist neo-conservative view. Following WWII and in response to the depression of the 1930s, there was an attempt to avoid excessive stagnation as well as a great demand for social services and the need for infrastructure building. In order to accomplish this, Keynesian ideology was adopted. John Maynard Keynes argued that the slumps experienced in capitalist economy were a result of overproduction and insufficient demand. Therefore, governments should encourage consumer demand in low economic periods and discourage consumer demand in booming economic periods by adjusting government spending and taxation, as a result creating equilibrium.

For a long period following WWII the Keynesian Welfare state appeared to be working and the welfare state ideology remained in place. The dominance of the welfare ideology allowed the state to perform economic management functions as a means to redistribute wealth through employment, universal social programs and income maintenance. However, after 1970 inflation and unemployment persisted for a slew of reasons including the oil crisis. The result was a lengthy period of government deficits, a context that provided neo-conservatives fuel for their anti-welfare fire.

Currently in Canada, and more specifically Ontario, the reigning political ideology favours minimal state involvement in economic life. This neo-conservative ideology promotes, in general, a free market economy and reduction or abolishment of government social expenditures. This ideology rests on the theory that everyone will benefit from free market societies as wealth tends to have a trickle down effect. However, there is little evidence to support this ideology, and as the welfare state is becoming smaller and smaller, the result has been an increase in inequality. In this blog we will attempt to point out the ways in which neo-conservative ideology has managed become dominate, specifically through our examination of the Workfare policy in Ontario.

The social spending that is under greatest attack in Ontario is income maintenance programs. While education and health care spending tend to receive the most support, income maintenance, a program that assists the most disadvantaged, has been the target of Ontario’s conservative governments. It is my opinion that this spending is targeted because it affects the already politically marginalized. The current workfare policy works to define and maintain the poor as deviant, justifying the removal of funds from the welfare system as well as increased support for workfare programs. This program subsequently works to maintain inequalities, not lessen them.

History of "Workfare" Around the World

The policy of workfare is not a new idea; it goes as far back as the 16th Century in England, when Elizabethan Poor Laws established workhouses for those living in poverty that were deemed able to work. The form of indoor relief required that destitute individuals enter an institution (or “workhouse”) in which they would work in exchange for money, food, and clothing. Outdoor relief was also in effect at the time, which involved similar assistance but without having to enter a workhouse. Indoor relief was similar to present-day workfare except that today workhouses are not used. However, then and now, individuals worked in order to receive government assistance.

The Workhouse Test Act of 1723 was passed by the British government to require persons wanting poor relief to enter workhouses. Therefore, the Workhouse Test Act enforced only indoor relief onto those living in poverty in order to get them to work for their social assistance. This is not to be mistaken with the workhouse test in Britain, a condition of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 which was the same idea of the Workhouse Test Act (that those wanting poor relief would have to enter workhouses) however the condition was never actually implemented, and outdoor relief was continued to be given.

Australia’s Work for the Dole program is another example of a federally-funded work-based welfare program. After a trial-run in 1997, Work for the Dole was permanently enacted in 1998, in both a part-time and full-time form in which the same idea of “mutual obligation” is maintained by working for welfare assistance. Work for the Dole is still in effect today. Welfare-to-Work was a similar program in effect in the United States, however Welfare-to-Work ended in 2004 due to mixed results as to the effectiveness of the program.

In 2005, Indian legislation enacted the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) to help seasonal labourers who only work for part of the year, due to crop growth patterns, avoid living in poverty. NREGA offers 100 days of paid employment per year to eligible workers to compensate for their time off work, rather than offering Western-model welfare assistance.

These are just a few examples of how world-wide, workfare has been and continues to be implemented in various forms. Workfare has been a controversial issue for many reasons, mainly because it assumes the position that unemployed and impoverished people seeking welfare are lazy and just looking for a free ride. Workfare has as one of its objectives the teaching of life skills by teaching people the “value” of work, but is under-paying individuals involved in workfare and leaving them worse-off after exiting the welfare system really teaching them the value of work?