From Welfare to Workfare

Women and the erosion of social policy

by Bonnie Morton

March/April 2006

“The lack of a gender-based analysis of welfare reform is having a devastating effect on the health and well-being of women.”

THE PRAIRIE WOMEN’S Health Centre of Excellence recently released a report entitled “Women and Social Assistance Policy in Saskatchewan and Manitoba,” which looks at the impact that changes in Canadian social assistance policies over the last forty years. The report found that social policy reforms in both provinces are causing hardship for women and their families.

In 1966, the federal, provincial and territorial governments of Canada entered into an agreement called the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP), which required the federal and provincial/territorial governments to share equally the responsibility to fund social programs, including welfare. CAP also guaranteed that people in need had the right to welfare benefits, to adequate food, clothing and shelter, and to freely chosen work. Under CAP, governments addressed women’s poverty and inequalities to some extent through programming that addressed women’s safety, special needs, access to education, social benefits, and access to appropriate childcare. Although not perfect, the CAP legislation provided women the ability to use this legislation to protect themselves from regressive social policy change that neglected their needs, while preventing provincial governments from introducing workfare schemes.

In 1996, however, CAP was replaced with the Canadian Health and Social Transfer. This change ended the fifty-fifty cost sharing of social programs, and the aforementioned protections of the rights of poor women. Under the Canada Health and Social Transfer, the federal government began to provide provincial and territorial governments with dramatically reduced funding for social programs, which they could spend according to their own priorities.

As a result, provinces and territories have made harsh cuts to welfare programs, shifting from an approach that upholds the social and economic rights of all to a “workfare” approach, in which government policy focuses on forcing welfare recipients off welfare and into the labour market—-primarily into insecure, low-paying jobs. This approach serves to shift the blame off of an economy that is failing people and onto the people it is failing. Such an approach targets the most vulnerable and marginalized people in our communities, including women, children, aboriginal people, and people with disabilities.

As governments have changed the way they provide services to poor people, they have also changed department and program names to reflect their new emphasis on workfare policies. In 1996 in Manitoba, the Social Assistance Act was replaced with the Employment and Assistance Act. Similarly in Saskatchewan, the Department of Social Services changed its name to the Department of Community Resources and Employment.

The policies of both the Manitoba and Saskatchewan governments assume that employment—-any employment—-provides an alternative to living in poverty and that the labour market is the path to self-sufficiency and independence. In fact, workfare has done little, if anything, to alleviate poverty. Women in both provinces are finding it harder than ever to secure adequate housing, food, clothing, medical, and transportation for themselves and their families. Workfare policies are really about creating large pools of cheap labour, leading to further exploitation of women and their families.

The Prairie Women’s Health Centre of Excellence report outlined a series of recommendations for addressing women’s poverty. Among other things, the report recommended an increase in benefit levels, the promotion of fair work rather than workfare, an end to the criminalization and stigmatization of women living in poverty, a recognition of women’s unpaid work in the home and the community, and job creation geared towards community development in poor neighbourhoods. It also recommended that governments recognize that poverty is hazardous to women’s health.

When social policies become so harsh that basic needs are no longer being met, these policies must be challenged. The lack of a gender-based analysis of welfare reform is having a devastating effect on the health and well-being of women in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. All of the women interviewed for the report indicated that they are worse off now than they were before the move to workfare-based policies. While it is true that much responsibility for the current problems can be attributed to the federal government’s retreat from funding social programs, it is also true that both Saskatchewan and Manitoba have made policy choices that have negatively impacted the most vulnerable members of our communities.

As citizens we have a responsibility to ensure everyone in our community can meet the real costs of their basic needs, whether that be from jobs with decent wages or adequate social benefits. Let us take our social responsibility seriously and call upon our governments to cease the workfare approach and start treating poor people justly.

Bonnie Morton has worked as an anti-poverty advocate for the past nineteen years. She works with the Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry. To read the Prairie Women’s Health Centre of Excellence report, go to

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