Workfare: Ideology for a New Under–Class

Edited by Eric Schragge, Garamond Publishers. Paperback $21.95

Reviewed by Barbara Moore

Eric Shragge of the School of Social Work, McGill University, has brought together academics, action-researchers and front-line anti-poverty workers in this edited contribution to the debate surrounding the controversy of workfare in Canada and the United States. The authors provide readers with a range of definitions of workfare, case studies of actual workfare programmes and their political analyses of state social assistance policies in New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and the United States. Each chapter gives documented evidence that workfare programmes are not an effective strategy for full employment, particularly in the long-term. The main point all the authors present comprehensively from their different experiences and perspectives is that even with solid evidence pointing to the dismal failures of workfare programmes, governments continue to pursue these punitive social policies.

Shragge begins the book with a brief historical overview of social assistance and welfare reform going back to the Elizabethan Poor laws of 1601 and forward to the current devastation of the Canada Assistance Program, which was scuttled by the Chrétien government on April 1, 1996. The Canada Assistance Program was introduced by “the Just Society” in the mid-1960s as a means to distribute welfare as a human right. There were five national standards guaranteed under CAP:

the right to income when in need;

the right to an amount of income that meets basic requirements;

the right to appeal a welfare decision one feels is wrong;

the right to income when in need regardless of the province you’re from;

the right not to have to work for welfare.

With the loss of CAP, most of these rights were eradicated, leaving Canada and the provinces in violation of the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Canada and the provinces signed in 1976. Yet, even before CAP was destroyed, the right not to have to work for welfare had already been challenged by the McKenna government in New Brunswick as early as 1987, when Canada and New Brunswick signed their first five-year “Employability Enhancement Agreement”. That CAP was not ever properly enforced within provinces and municipal units while it was official federal policy is not something addressed to any real extent by the authors and could have been a welcome addition for the sake of a full comprehension of the very real problems associated with the administration of social programmes since 1966.

Shragge does include in his overview of workfare Marxist analysis of the unemployed as part of the “reserve army of labour” tied into the labour process as a relative surplus population. Shragge offers,

Workfare policies tie this surplus population to the discipline of the labour market, and workfare is the means of marshaling them towards it.... Workfare can therefore be understood as the contemporary means of attaching those on welfare to the labour market. The central contradiction is that the number of jobs is scarce relative to the increasing number of people dependent on welfare. Why, then push people into the labour market? (page 30)

Shragge contends that due to this fixation on workfare, the state is ignoring the fact that we are actually facing a crisis of work – that is, rising structural unemployment. He also points out that the state is also ignoring the central issue of the redistribution of income and wealth. That is hardly a surprise given that our capitalist state is structured to legitimate capital accumulation.

Under the title, “The Politics of Workfare: NB Works”, Robert Mullaly builds on his previously published work with Joan McFarland (1995) regarding the reality of New Brunswick’s workfare program. NB Works is described as a work/learnfare project which is financed and administered by the federal government and New Brunswick with the province in charge of its delivery. Mullaly examines the New Brunswick experience along two dimensions: the program’s service functions and its political functions. In its service function, the McKenna government was careful to project the main problem to be the unemployed and not unemployment per se. Those targeted for NB Works are those who: a) have been in receipt of social assistance for at least six months; b) are entitled to a higher range of income support (e.g. single mothers and two-parent families); c) have less than grade twelve education but at least grade seven; d) have little or no labour force attachment; and e) are assessed as having the greatest potential for success in the program. NB Works is shown to be a very expensive program to administer. Of the 3,000 participants targeted for the program, a budget of $177 million over six years was allocated (or $59,000 per person). Because a whopping two-thirds of participants have already dropped out of the program, there is strong doubt that the program will ever produce successful results of long-term employment. Mullaly includes a section giving participants’ own views of NB Works; the reasons for the program’s failures becomes evident in their complaints.

The political function NB Works was to achieve for the McKenna government was image building for the Premier and the province. New Brunswick holds an image in Canada as a poor, depressed and stagnant ‘drive-through’ province which McKenna was anxious to change in order to attract more big business and economic development. Mullaly delves into the “McKenna magic” image machine, which kept McKenna popular with business and the public alike. Reforming welfare with NB Works actually reduced the Province’s short-term welfare costs and brought in new federal funds while giving McKenna an image of “being innovative and progressive” with respect to getting recipients off social assistance and into waged work. In reality, the only jobs actually created were for the service providers who administered and worked for NB Works. One could assume that with the high failure rate of the program, those service providers may be in danger of losing their jobs as well.

Workfare in Quebec is reported by Shragge and Marc-Andre Deniger and is characterized as a shift from welfare to workfare, a reduction in social spending, an increase in the complexity and bureaucracy of the social assistance program, and the erosion of collective rights and freedoms. They report on the evaluations of workfare programs such as Rattrapage Scolaire, EXTRA (Expérience de travail) and PAIE (programme d’aide à l’intégration en emploi) which demonstrate that the results are no more than “a way of rearranging the order in the lineups of the unemployed”. They state:

Workfare therefore functions in the short term as a form of direct subsidy to private employers and in the long term as a weapon to reduce labour costs, degrade working conditions and weaken trade unions. Whether or not these programs were designed with these goals in mind is not really relevant. The fact is that they provide these functions very effectively by mobilizing (in Marxist terms) the reserve army of labour. (pg. 81)

Shragge and Deniger do admit that some community groups have actually made gains from the workfare programs. For instance the Notre-Dame de Grace Anti-Poverty Group was formed by people on welfare to protest against the Bou–Bou Macouttes and Bill 37, the 1988 welfare reforms in Quebec. Once the bill was passed, the NDG-APG sponsored an EXTRA project which brought in some needed funds and a way to work closely with those on social assistance. The training provided to recipients actually created social solidarity and produced some creative programmes which could be advantageous to those receiving assistance. This could also mean that when community-based social programmes receive adequate money to support their needs, creative experiments can be successful in producing long-term employment and advantages for the workforce overall.

In reviewing the workfare programmes in Ontario and Alberta, Ernie S. Lightman and Jonathan Murphy give an in-depth look at the politics in each province which produced the punitive social programmes there. In the case of Ontario, the failure of the Rae NDP government to follow through on promises to welfare recipients set the stage for the conservative agenda of Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution, which promised to give people on social assistance “a hand-up rather than a hand-out”. Shaped entirely by a right-wing ideological agenda, the Harris approach is shown as nothing more than the work-relief programs of the 1930s, with a nasty edge. In Alberta, the litany of ‘work or starve’ programmes have meant unbelievable hardships for those needing assistance. For instance, presently in Alberta, single parents with children over the age of six months are now required to look for work ­– in the past, they has been exempted until their youngest child was two years old; 2,600 welfare recipients between the ages of sixty and sixty-five have been forced to take their Canada Pension Plan benefits early meaning a permanent 30 per cent loss in the value of their pensions; and special food allowance for diabetics and pregnant women have been reduced. While touting the success of their workfare programmes to get people off of welfare, the Alberta government refuses to monitor their programmes or allow in-depth evaluations to reveal whether there are really successful or not.

Workfare in the U.S.A. is described by Donna Hardina as a product of political rhetoric based on the assumption that most welfare recipients are teenage mothers, primarily African Americans, who do not value work. As Hardina asserts,

“Culture of poverty” ideology has also been used to justify social engineering programs that provide a system of benefits and sanctions designed to enforce low wage work; there is no empirical evidence that supports the notion that most welfare recipients do not wish to work. Researchers have not found differences between welfare recipients and non–recipients in attitudes toward work nor have major differences in attitudes toward work been found among members of diverse ethnic groups. (page 133)

Hardina also shows that welfare benefits are now being downloaded from the federal government to the individual states. In many states, eligibility for assistance is at the whim of state legislators. As seen earlier in the New Brunswick examples, most workfare programs have not placed people in long-term jobs. Instead, women who are heads of households are being forced into the low-wage labour market, their care giver role as a single mother is being devalued and there is a steady promotion of having women return to traditional two-parent households. Hardina describes this as a “victim blaming” ideology where “low income single women will continue to be oppressed by patriarchy for perceived immorality and lack of a work ethic”.

The most interesting contribution to this book is by Jean Swanson, who has long been associated with the National Anti-Poverty Organization in Canada and is a strong advocate for the poor. Ms. Swanson directs us to “resist workfare” in order to challenge the most fundamental myths that our economic system is based on. She aptly describes the myths and the “social policy newspeak” that justifies workfare, such as “breaking the cycle of poverty”, “disincentive to work”, “training for the jobs of the future” and the phrase the “truly needy” as she reminds us that “lost in the dialogue is the status of the truly greedy, who continue to use their tax breaks and incentives to accumulate wealth”. By turning the social policy newspeak phrases on to the wealthy, she shows how ridiculous they really are in examples like, “Would the wealthy have more self-esteem if they worked for their money, rather than inherit it?”.

Swanson calls for more education to challenge the myths so many have accepted and she asserts that all groups in Canada who are seeking social justice must get actively involved in putting an end to poor-bashing. She also calls for resistance against workfare at the United Nations level as well as in local, regional and national arenas, and her ‘transformative’ idea of resistance suggests a humane alternative to the exploitation of workers and the unemployed alike by building a broad social movement for a just society “where decent jobs at decent pay exist for all who need them, and where people who can’t take paid work will be supported adequately and with respect and dignity”.

Shragge has greatly added to social policy debates with the contribution of this book to the study of workfare. This work will be invaluable in the analysis of social welfare policies in Canada at the university level. Yet the book uses clear language to discuss the theoretical arguments as well as actual case studies, which should be of interest to all progressive thinkers. Anyone who is a member of an active social movement in Canada would greatly benefit from the historical documentation to the challenges given us by Jean Swanson and her challenge to unite against our oppressors.

Spark! #10. pp.40-44