Racialized impact of welfare fraud control in Brithish Columbia and Ontario
Dr. Kiran MirchandaniOntario Institute for Studies in EducationUniversity of TorontoToronto, ONAnd
Dr. Wendy ChanSchool of CriminologySimon Fraser UniversityBurnaby, BC
Canadian Race Relations Foundation
This report, The Racialized Impact of Welfare Fraud Control in British Columbia and Ontario, documents the experiences of people of colour who have been receiving government assistance (welfare). In 2002-2003, the authors interviewed twenty-four people of colour in two provinces - British Columbia and Ontario - regarding their views and experiences of the welfare system, particularly in relation to the enforcement of anti-fraud policies. With the help of various community agencies in both provinces, the researchers used a snowball sampling method and were able to document the impact of neo-liberal social policies on people of colour.
Racialized welfare recipients' experiences of accessing benefits in Canada are characterized by the perception that not only does the system fail to adequately help individuals in need, but there are also too many barriers to overcome when attempting to access welfare. Their experiences shed light on the consequences of decades of continued attack on the social assistance system; in the current era of neo-liberalism, governments are constantly seeking new ways of reducing welfare spending.
Some of the key strategies that provinces have embraced to reduce the number of people eligible for welfare benefits are:
People of colour, particularly women (who are more likely than men to live in poverty and typically care for young children), have borne the brunt of these neo-liberal policy initiatives. This report highlights the state's failure to help poor people in need of assistance, while also blaming impoverished people for their lack of independence and self-sufficiency.
The 'War Against Poverty'
In recent years, the criminalization and penalization of poverty through the increased surveillance and control of welfare recipients has led many poverty advocates to claim that a 'war against poverty' exists. This report argues that people of colour experience some of the sharpest casualties of governments' desires to roll back the welfare state. Relying on myths and stereotypes about racial difference, the enforcement and policing of welfare fraud policies constructs all people of colour as potential 'cheaters' and 'abusers' of the system. This has allowed the stigmatization and discriminatory treatment of people of colour to persist unchallenged within the welfare system.
In the name of fraud protection, people of colour are treated in dehumanizing ways and face surveillance and scrutiny that constructs them as criminals. Welfare policies ignore the structural racism faced by many immigrants and people of colour, which filters them into precarious and poorly paid employment, regardless of their qualifications. In line with Giroux (2003), the authors note that in the past few decades, racism has undergone a significant shift and now takes new forms. As Giroux argues, "In its current manifestation, racism survives through the guise of neo-liberalism, a kind of repartee that imagines human agency as simply a matter of individual choices, the only obstacle to effective citizenship and agency being the lack of principled self-help and moral responsibility" (2003, p. 191).
Main Findings of the Report
- The recent emphasis in welfare reforms on enforcement has resulted in more punitive and criminalizing practices, whereby people on welfare feel as though they are constantly under suspicion.
- Almost all the respondents interviewed mentioned the utter inadequacy of the welfare payments received, resulting in difficulties in making ends meet. Many welfare recipients regularly visited food banks and relied on community support agencies to supplement their welfare payments.
- Advocating for higher payments or attempting to ensure continuity of welfare payments was challenging for many recipients who did not have strong English language skills. Access to translation and interpretation services has been severely impacted by government cutbacks.
- Many respondents felt that access to welfare involved too many bureaucratic rules that created constant barriers. They also noted that case workers were quick to suspend or cut off recipients from benefits for minor transgressions, which often resulted in individuals facing dire consequences.
- Respondents faced many structural barriers to employment due to racism in the labour market. Regardless of their qualifications or education levels, people of colour were confronted by the expectation that they would be most suited to deskilled and precarious employment.
- Many respondents noted feeling depressed or ashamed about being on welfare. Rather than providing support, however, the systems and structures in place served to exacerbate these feelings.
- Much of the stress of being and staying on welfare was attributed to the interactions which individuals had with their case workers. Case workers are the frontline agents of the new policy regime and responsible for ensuring the active surveillance of recipients.
- Respondents noted that the dehumanizing treatment they received from their welfare workers was the result of the fact that they were both poor and people of colour. Recipients experienced both racial slurs and differential treatment from case workers.
- Case workers' treatment of people on welfare must be situated within the broader context of policy changes that have occurred in the Canadian welfare system over the past ten years; these have been guided by neo-liberal racism.