In July 1998, Saskatchewan’s Department of Social Services launched the Building Independence program as part of the provincial government’s welfare reform. Social Services representatives claim that the goal is to reduce the number of people on welfare rolls by providing job training that will give them the skills necessary to secure full-time employment. A number of Saskatoon residents, however, question whether these initiatives, particularly the Jobs First program, actually improve the quality of life for former welfare recipients. They approached the Saskatoon Anti-Poverty Coalition to conduct research into the effects of such labour force attachment programs, also known as welfare to work programs. The early results, based on a thorough literature review, Social Services data analysis, and interviews with Jobs First participants, are the subject of Carmen Dyck’s report, “Off Welfare … Now What?”: The Impact of Provincial Welfare to Work Training Programs in Saskatchewan.
From the 1940s to the 1970s, Canada was a liberal welfare state, which means that the government acknowledged a responsibility to making sure that all Canadians were entitled to adequate levels of economic and social security. Since the late 1970s, however, funding cutbacks and changing cultural attitudes have limited government’s role and made poverty an individual (and often moral) failing. Government focus, therefore, has been on moving people off welfare and into the labour force. The primary criteria for determining the success of such efforts, according to Social Services promotional literature, is whether the number of people on welfare goes down.
However, as Dyck’s research suggests, this strategy is flawed and ineffective. First, the nature of Canada’s current economy makes it difficult for those without highly specialized skills or education to obtain work that pays above the minimum wage. In Saskatchewan, a full-time minimum wage job still pays well below the poverty line. Employment alone does not guarantee an adequate quality of life. Second, the process involved in labour force attachment programs are heavily bureaucratized, demand large amounts of information, are dominated by long waits and a reliance on jargon, and employ criteria that can automatically disqualify applicants. The competence and sympathy of caseworkers also affects the training experience. Of interest, Social Services data for one six-month period showed both low attendance in the Jobs First program and, of those who attended, even lower success at finding work. Yet, by Social Services interpretation, removal from the welfare rolls alone suggests success. Finally, there is a gender inequality built into both the welfare system and general labour system that discriminates against women’s labour, particularly unpaid work. The male bias in these programs, for example, does not account for childcare needs that many women need to address when joining the workforce.
There is no compelling evidence that such programs have improved people’s ability to find work or that an adequate quality of life can be assured via the labour market. This report is a valuable contribution towards reframing the debate from one about numbers of welfare recipients to the quality of life of society’s economically marginalized.