Of the many chatted words in the social reform vocabulary of Canadians today, the term workfare seems to stimulate much debate and emotion. Along with the notions of self-sufficiency, employability enhancement, and work disincentives, it is the concept of workfare that causes the most tension between it’s government and business supporters and it’s anti-poverty and social justice critics. In actuality, workfare is a contraction of the concept of “working for welfare” which basically refers to the requirement that recipients perform unpaid work as a condition of receiving social assistance.
Recent debates on the subject of welfare are far from unique. They are all simply contemporary attempts to decide if we live in a just society or not. This debate has been a major concern throughout history. Similarly, the provision of financial assistance to the able-bodied working-age poor has always been controversial.
On one side are those who articulate the feelings and views of the poor, namely, the Permissive Position, who see them as victims of our society and deserving of community support. The problems of the poor range from personal (abandonment or death of the family income earner) to the social (racial prejudice in the job market) and economic (collapse in the market demand for their often limited skills due to an economic recession or shift in technology). The Permissive View reveals that all participants in society are deserving of the unconditional legal right to social security without any relation to the individual’s behaviour. It is believed that any society which can afford to supply the basic needs of life to every individual of that society but does not, can be accused of imposing life-long deprivation or death to those needy individuals. The reason for the needy individual being in that situation, whether they are willing to work, or their actions while receiving support have almost no weight in their ability to acquire this welfare support. This view is presently not withheld in society, for if it was, the stereotype of the ‘Typical Welfare Recipient’ would be unheard of.
On the other side, the Individualists believe that generous aid to the poor is a poisoned chalice that encourages the poor to pursue a life of poverty opposing their own long-term interests as well of those of society in general. Here, high values are placed on personal choice. Each participant in society is a responsible individual who is able to make his own decisions in order to manipulate the progression of his own life. In conjunction with this opinion, if you are given the freedom to make these decisions, then surely you must accept the consequences of those decisions. An individual must also work part of his time for others (by means of government taxing on earned income). Those in society who support potential welfare recipients do not give out of charity, but contrastingly are forced to do it when told by the Government. Each person in society contains ownership of their own body and labour. Therefore anything earned by this body and labour in our Free Market System is deserved entirely by that individual. Any means of deducting from these earnings to support others is equivalent to criminal activity. Potential welfare recipients should only be supported by voluntary funding. For this side, welfare ultimately endangers society by weakening two of it’s moral foundations: that able-bodied adults should be engaged in some combination of working, learning and child rearing; and secondly, that both parents should assume all applicable responsibilities of raising their children.(5)
In combination of the two previous views, the Puritan View basically involves the idea that within a society which has the ability to sufficiently support all of it’s individuals, all participants in the society should have the legal right to Government supplied welfare benefits. However, the individual’s initiative to work is held strongly to this right. Potential welfare recipients are classified as a responsibility of the Government. The resources required to support the needy are taken by means of taxation from the earnings of the working public. This generates an obligation to work. Hence, if an individual does not make the sacrifice of his time and energy to contribute their earnings to this fund, they are not entitled to acquire any part of it when in need unless a justifiable reason such as disability is present for the individual’s inability to work. The right to acquire welfare funds is highly conditional on how an individual accounts for his failure in working toward his life’s progression by his own efforts. Two strong beliefs of the Puritan Position are; Firstly, those on welfare should definitely not receive a higher income than the working poor, and secondly, incentives for welfare recipients to work must be evident.
The distinction between the “deserving” and “non-deserving” poor is as evident now as it was in the Poor Laws of the 16th and 17th centuries.(1) The former were the elderly, the disabled, the sick, single mothers and dependent children, all of whom were unable to meet their needs by participating in the labour force and, therefore, were considered worthy of receiving assistance. The latter were able-bodied adults who were often forced to do some kind of work as a condition of obtaining relief as a means of subsistence. Those who refused this work requirement were presumably not really in need. Throughout our own history of public assistance, the non-deserving poor always got harsher treatment and fewer benefits than their deserving counterparts.
Due to it’s mandatory nature, historically, workfare has been viewed as a forceful measure. Two other program strategies are now in use as well. Namely, a service strategy, and a financial strategy.(8) The former includes support services for the work participant, such as counselling, child care, and training. The latter includes a higher rate of benefits for those who participate in work programs than someone would receive from social assistance alone.
To actually show that workfare does not work, we must observe the United States, which has had federally mandated workfare programs for welfare recipients since 1967. Although the research on American workfare programs is inconclusive to some extent, many findings suggest that workfare is ineffective in reducing welfare costs and moving people from the welfare rolls into adequate employment. It was found that low-cost programs with few support services and a focus on immediate job placements had extremely limited effects. These did not produce sizable savings or reduce poverty or reduce large numbers of people from welfare.(9) Furthermore, While expensive programs with extensive supports and services were more likely to place people in employment, there was a definite point of diminishing returns where the expenses outweighed the benefits.(10)
Even the limited success by some American workfare programs is highly questionable. Largely missing from the research is the discussion of workfare’s major limitation: The lack of available adequate jobs. In the wide scheme of things, it doesn’t matter whether the program is mandatory with no frills or voluntary and comprehensive if there are no jobs to fill. This is the “Achilles Heel” of all workfare programs. Even if some individuals manage to find jobs and get off welfare, if the unemployment rate for the area does not change, it is obvious that there has already been a displacement of some people in the workforce. What actually occurs is a shuffling of some people into the workforce and some out, with no net increase in the number of jobs. Workfare only increases the competition for jobs, it doesn’t create them (except for those who manage and deliver the programs, generally not welfare recipients). In addition, the few jobs that workfare participants do get tend to be either temporary, so the person returns to welfare, or low-paying with minimal benefits, so that people are not moved out of poverty, but merely from the category of “non-working poor” to “working poor”.(11)
Another issue largely ignored in Canada as well are health and safety conditions affecting workfare participants. For example, in New Brunswick an unusually high accident rate has been reported among welfare recipients who took part in provincial work programs.
Given the overall failure of workfare programs to reduce welfare expenditures, reduce poverty, and move people into adequate and permanent jobs, workfare should not even be discussed as a viable social reform option today. Politicians and the business establishment only call for workfare because it helps to protect their privileged positions in our society. Workfare serves to preserve the status quo by:
i. creating the illusion that politicians are actually doing something meaningful about the deficit and welfare.
ii. increasing the reserve pool of available labour which can be called upon at any time to carry out society’s dangerous and menial jobs.
iii. increasing the competition for scarce jobs, which tends to keep wages down and profits up.
iv. reinforcing the attitude that people on welfare are largely responsible for our economic and social ills, that they are lazy, deviants who will not work unless forced to do so.
Workfare creates the assumption that unemployment is caused by personal choice or lack of work ethic. However, due to the fact that we have well over one million people in Canada actively looking for work, this is a ridiculous assumption. Fifteen thousand people lined up one day in Oshawa in January to apply for one of a few hundred possible jobs at General Motors.
The problem is not one of a lost worth ethic or personal pathology. The problem is a lack of jobs, and workfare undoubtedly does nothing to compensate or eliminate this problem.
1. deSchweinitz, Karl. ENGLAND’S ROAD TO SOCIAL SECURITY (New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1943)
2. Irving, Allan. “From no poor law to the social assistance review: a history of social assistance in Ontario, 1791-1987” (Toronto: Social Assistance Review Committee, Research Document 44,1987)
3. Hum, Derek. FEDERALISM AND THE POOR: A REVIEW OF THE CANADA ASSISTANCE PLAN (Toronto: Ontario Economic Council, 1983)
4. Lightman, Ernie S. “Work Incentives Across Canada”, JOURNAL OF CANADIAN STUDIES, 26 (1), 1991
5. Evans, Patricia. “From workfare to the social contract: implications for Canada of recent U.S. welfare reforms”, CANADIAN PUBLIC POLICY, xix,1 (1993): 54-67. Also: Hardina, Donna. ” Targeting Women For Participation in Work Programs: Lessons From the U.S.”, CANADIAN REVIEW OF SOCIAL POLICY, 33 (1994): 1-20
6. Hess, M. “Traditional Workfare: pros and cons” (Toronto: Ontario Social Assistance Review Committee, Research Document 21, April 1987)
7. Johnson, Hubert. “Welfare work Will Go Ahead Despite Snubs,” CALGARY HERALD, 6 January 1983
8. Lightman, 1991. Also: Rein, Martin. INCENTIVES AND PLANNING IN SOCIAL POLICY (Chicago: Adeline, 1983)
12.Handler, J. and Hasenfeld, Y. MORAL CONSTRUCTION OF POVERTY: WELFARE REFORM IN AMERICA (Newbury Park, California: Russell Sage Foundation, 1991)
13.Govier, Trudy. THE RIGHT TO EAT AND THE DUTY TO WORK. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, vol. 5 (1975). (Wilfred Laurier University Press,1975)