Canada: punishing the undeserving poor

The governance and perception of welfare in Canada has inextricably linked poverty, welfare and crime: to be poor is to be culpable. Only by resisting punitive trends and addressing the root causes of poverty can we reverse the tide of criminalization in welfare, says Wendy Chan
Wendy Chan
1 August 2011

The policing of social assistance in Canada is not new. Individuals, particularly women who rely on the state for support, have long found themselves under constant scrutiny by both state officials and the public over their eligibility and entitlement for access to welfare benefits.

Kimberly Rogers was one such woman. In April of 2001, Rogers, 40, had been found guilty of welfare fraud in Ontario—having failed to declare student loans while receiving welfare during a time when she was a full-time student in college. She was banned from receiving welfare for three months, ordered to repay about $13,300, had her drug card removed, and sentenced to 6 months house arrest. Rogers lived in a small apartment without air conditioning and was serving her sentence during a record-breaking heat-wave. Her sentence made it impossible for her to pay rent, her bills or obtain the most basic necessities. Rogers appealed her conviction and sentence, and was granted a temporary injunction reinstating her benefits in June. But since she had to repay welfare, her debt was taken off each monthly cheque, which after rent, left her with only $18 a month for food and other expenses. In August of 2001, Rogers, who was eight months pregnant and had a history of depression, was found dead in her apartment.

An inquest into Rogers’ death highlighted the disproportionate response by the courts to her offence. The irony is that Rogers would have been better looked after had she received a jail term rather than house arrest. Yet, despite this tragedy, the Ontario Conservative government defended their policies on welfare fraud, considered to be the harshest in Canada.

Like many other western countries, access to welfare benefits in Canada has been gradually limited to a smaller and smaller group of individuals. Welfare reforms have stripped away the idea of universal access, resulting in a means tested system that requires individuals to be constantly seeking employment or enrolled in a training program as a condition of, and while in receipt of, state benefits. Moreover, welfare benefits have been reduced dramatically in order to deter claimants from becoming “dependent” on welfare. As a result, basic survival needs such as food, medical supplies, and housing often cannot be met. In addition, most jurisdictions do not allow welfare claimants to supplement their benefits. Welfare recipients must report all earnings while receiving state support, and failure to do so, as in the case of Kimberly Rogers, constitutes a form of welfare fraud. Finally, claimants are required to provide documentation on an ongoing basis about all aspects of their personal life in order to demonstrate that they are truly in need of support.

Those who fail to abide by the rules of welfare will find themselves temporarily cut-off, have their benefits reduced, or become permanently barred from future support. Moreover, the surveillance of welfare has become increasingly invasive as governments share data across different departments (eg. immigration, criminal justice) to reduce the problem of fraud.

Welfare fraud generally refers to receiving social assistance as a result of providing information that the person knows is false or misleading. There are numerous problems with how fraud is interpreted in the context of welfare. First, overpayments as a result of administrative errors that are not reported by claimants can be classified as fraud. Regardless of whether or not the claimant is aware that there is an overpayment present, failure to report the excess monies can result in sanctions. Second, failure to report all assets constitutes fraud regardless of claimant’s ignorance of the policies. Third, a recent report by the auditor general in Ontario found that most welfare case workers were not following the rules to prevent fraud from occurring. Yet it is the welfare recipients who bear the brunt of the government’s desire to “crack down” on welfare fraud. The report noted that the real cost of the welfare system is overpayment to recipients due to poor administration of benefits and not welfare fraud itself that is the culprit. Welfare fraud constitutes at best, 1-2% of all welfare cases according to numerous studies that have been conducted. Nonetheless, the message sent by politicians has been that welfare fraud is the key reason for why the welfare system is so costly.

Several examples of current surveillance measures by the government highlight the intrusive nature of attempts to combat the so-called fraud problem. First there is the sheer lack of privacy as a welfare claimant. The requirement to provide documentation of every aspect of their lives to caseworkers, the home visits by state agents, the use of technology to track recipients and their information, and the invitation for non-state agents (present/current boyfriends and spouses, landlords, neighbours) to participate in the surveillance project through the use of fraud hotlines demonstrates the unprecedented levels of surveillance endured by claimants.

While the policing of welfare fraud has always been a part of the welfare system, what has changed in recent times is the intensity with which welfare jurisdictions are pursuing the problem of fraud, and the punitive treatment of individuals prosecuted for welfare fraud. The increased surveillance and criminalization of welfare recipients has shifted the image of welfare. Now, poverty, welfare and crime are inextricably linked such that "to be poor is to be culpable" and the category of “undeserving” poor has expanded dramatically.

Women welfare claimants, in particular, suffer as a result of restrictive eligibility requirements, punitive measures, intense surveillance and inadequate benefits. In British Columbia, for example, the lifetime ban for welfare fraud can result in pushing women back to their abusive spouses if they have no other financial recourse.  The lack of flexibility and compassion in the system leaves many women stressed out and constantly worried about the never-ending scrutiny over their lives and the perpetual fear that their benefits will be cut-off. All of this makes it difficult to for them to adequately care for their families and it reduces their overall quality of life.

Take for example the spouse in the house policies, which state that anyone who lives with a member of the opposite sex for a specified period is in a spousal relationship. Almost all welfare jurisdictions have some type of spouse in the house policy. Welfare recipients are required to report the presence of this person to their caseworkers as this affects the amount of benefits they will receive since it is assumed that the “spouse” will also provide support to the recipient. This policy is heavily gendered as the application and enforcement has disproportionately affected single women who have had their assistance cut-off because they failed to report their “spouse”. Critics argue that this policy effectively serves to ensure that women’s entitlement to welfare benefits is tied to judgments about her moral character, in particular her sexual chastity. Not only are women’s privacy interests ignored, but often women would be forced into relationships of economic dependence with men who had no legal obligation to support them. For women receiving welfare benefits, this policy constitutes one of main mechanisms used by the state to regulate and monitor her behavior and her relationships.

Finally, people of colour on welfare – particularly single mothers – have been disproportionately affected by the increasing criminalizing of poverty through welfare reforms. Racist stereotypes like the “welfare queen”, faulty assumptions about the culture and values of racialized communities continue to cast people of colour as undeserving and in need of intensive and moral surveillance. Although communities of colour typically experience higher levels of poverty due to structural barriers in the labour market, the prevailing public and state view, as shown by a report reviewing welfare recipients in two Canadian provinces, is that people of colour are slothful and dependent and need to be pushed into employment.

Notwithstanding all these harsh measures, the general public continues to uphold myths and perpetuate stereotypes about the “generous” nature of welfare benefits and the “undeserving” character of most welfare claimants.  The governance of welfare has promoted the views that poverty is an individual problem, dependency on the state for support is harmful and promotes deviance, and that the poor are to blame for their situation. Not surprisingly, welfare recipients argue that the process of obtaining and receiving support strips away any notion of human dignity.

The provision of welfare in Canada and elsewhere has shifted dramatically over the past several decades, largely at the expense of poor families who are effectively punished if they fail to rise above their economic difficulties. Current welfare policies do not take into account the changing nature of work, particularly the temporary and poorly paid nature of work available to the unemployed. In addition to disentitling more people from access to already reduced assistance, the state also criminalizes homelessness or panhandling, into which people in poverty are increasingly forced.

Positive measures such as increasing the minimum wage (to $10 per hour), providing support benefits to assist transition from welfare to employment, child benefits tax credits and affordable childcare, and lowering housing rental rates for employed low-income earners are resisted on grounds of high levels of public debt and demands for fiscal constraints. Yet, only by resisting these punitive trends and addressing the root causes of poverty can we hope to avoid another situation like the Rogers case, and reverse the tide of criminalization in welfare policy development.

This article is part of the new dialogue Governing poverty:risking rights? on openDemocracy 5050


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