Since WWII social security in Canada has been expanded to protect the adequacy of individual and family incomes threatened by the costs of medical and hospital care, of family size or of shelter (although Canada, unlike many western European countries, provides only limited help to ensure that a disproportionate share of people's income is not spent on shelter). Governments have also introduced MINIMUM WAGE legislation and have provided help for workers to upgrade job skills or to relocate. In the 1970s, federal and provincial governments experimented with "guaranteed annual income" programs but fear of the cost implications ruled out any new advance in social security.
The History of Social Security in Canada
The history of social security in Canada is a 20th-century story with much of the action occurring in the century's second half, having been kick-started by WWII. But more complete understanding requires that attention is paid to the contributions of the first European settlers in the 17th century; the influence of Confederation in 1867 and the BRITISH NORTH AMERICA ACT; the impact of WWI; the experience of the Great Depression (a time when Americans developed their social security systems, while Canadians appointed a Royal Commission to study relations between the 2 senior levels of government); WWII, the cataclysmic event that emboldened governments to think and plan a social security system for an advanced industrial society, plans for which unfolded, somewhat haphazardly, between 1945 and 1971.
The new, liberalized UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE Act of 1971 represented the high tide of social-security advance in Canada. From that point on, the tide recedes as governments face rising deficits and debt and a new threat - stagflation. New thinking about social security emerged - terms such as universality were discarded in favour of selectivity and targeting. Some hoary and discredited 19th-century notions were dusted off and presented as new ideas, ie, as the 19th-century poor law was accused of promoting pauperism, so in the late 20th century unemployment insurance is blamed for rising unemployment rates. The "soup kitchens" of the 1930s have reappeared as "food banks" in the 1980s, and the 19th-century practice of restricting aid to the "worthy" poor is replicated in the earned income tax credit of 1989, designed to assist low-income families but restricted to those with a working parent. These and other discredited ideas for helping people are part of our social-security heritage and require a brief review of some salient events.
The Colonial Era
The settlers who colonized NEW FRANCE introduced the 17th-century French practice of assigning the care of the elderly, sick and orphaned to the Catholic Church and its institutions. The British who established Halifax in the mid-18th century introduced the English poor law enacted by the English Parliament in 1598. This legislation assigned the care of the poor to the smallest unit of government, the parish, financed by property taxes raised there. The British legislation introduced the idea of public responsibility for the care of the destitute, replacing a much older tradition of licensed begging and reliance on voluntary donations.
The English poor-law model was also imported into the American colonies and from there to what is now New Brunswick by the LOYALISTS. In 1763 Nova Scotia enacted legislation modelled on the English poor law, as did New Brunswick in 1786. Money raised locally was supplemented occasionally by a provincial grant to meet an extraordinary emergency, eg, serious fire or an outbreak of typhoid fever.
In other parts of British North America, the poor law model was not as closely copied. In PEI, for example, where there were only 1 or 2 towns of any size, all emergency help was dispensed from there; in Newfoundland (where the Colonial Office in London had actively discouraged settlement and the development of municipal institutions), charity organizations, friends and family were the principal sources of help. UPPER CANADA failed to enact a poor law in 1792, when the main body of English civil law was introduced into the new province. One result was the encouragement of voluntary charities. LOWER CANADA, with its French traditions, relied upon voluntary charitable collections to finance the welfare work of the Catholic Church. English Protestants settling in Lower Canada formed their own charitable agencies to take care of English-speaking poor.
In the colonial era, people who lived primarily in small, rural communities were more self-sufficient than Canadians today, not only from necessity but because it was more feasible. They produced most of their own food on small family farms and obtained many other necessities through barter; in emergencies neighbours helped each other. However, for those without friends and family, the only recourse was charity, considered proof of personal failure in many instances. In French Canada even asking for help from the churches was resisted. The help offered by charitable agencies was often paternalistic and meagre, and frequently administered in a harsh and demeaning manner. The classic example of this was the municipal poorhouse, a poor-law institution found in larger towns and cities. It housed the destitute of all ages, the sick, the senile, the mentally ill, the unemployed, children and infants. Its reputation was so fearsome that only those facing starvation would seek such help. In New Brunswick some of the smaller communities that could not afford the cost of these institutions auctioned off the care of the poor to local families, an utterly demeaning practice which continued until the latter part of the 19th century.
From Confederation to WWII
Under the British North America Act (now the Constitution Act of 1867), the relatively minor roles of government were assigned to the provinces, among them the exclusive right to legislate on "the establishment, maintenance and management of hospitals, asylums, charities and charitable institutions," a succinct description of existing social welfare organizations. The implicit judgement was that health and welfare were matters of purely local interest and control and that the provinces should reassign much of the responsibility to the municipalities or to voluntary charities. Provincial governments, however, became increasingly involved in a range of health and welfare programs, particularly in western provinces, where municipal organizations were rudimentary or nonexistent.
After 1867, industrialization drew people to the towns and cities in search of greater economic opportunity. Many discovered they had traded the relative security of the family farm for the insecurity of a factory job. People were now dependent upon a regular cash income, and any event which interrupted it gravely threatened their livelihood. In the years following Confederation, people's attitudes toward the appropriate government role on the economic security of the individual were still shaped by the pioneer values of independence and individualism, reflected in furious public debates in the 19th century about the necessity for, and value of, public schools, public-health measures and government regulation of working conditions. Poor relief was still delivered in a stigmatizing manner, and POVERTY, which was related in the public mind to individual failure, was commonly blamed on excessive drinking.
To avoid dependence on charity, 19th-century workers organized fraternal societies, each member contributing a small, regular amount to a special fund from which he could draw if sickness or accident prevented him from working. Trade unions, many of which originated at this time, struggled to raise standards of living and to provide income protection against the risk of wage loss, but these limited protections were available only to a minority of the work force. With the increasing industrialization of the late 19th century, the number of work accidents rose. Trade unions and other groups made this a public issue, and the result in 1914 was the first modern social-security program, the Workmen's Compensation Act of Ontario. Injured workers could now claim a regular cash income as a right. Ontario's example was soon copied by other provinces.
It should be acknowledged that an injured worker gave up the right to sue an employer for negligence in return for compensation. As such lawsuits were becoming more common, and more successful for the worker or the workers' survivors, business owners had as much, if not more, to gain from the legislation. This helps to explain the early appearance of social insurance in Canada. The next piece of Canadian social insurance, covering a different risk, unemployment, did not appear until 1940.
Social insurance, based on the assumption that risks to income security are a normal aspect of life in urban-industrial society and not the result of individual shortcomings, was pioneered in Germany in 1880s. Britain introduced the world's first UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE scheme in 1911. Social-insurance schemes provided a sense of entitlement to help which explains its rapid acceptance throughout the industrial world.
WWI and Social Security
WWI accelerated the processes of urbanization and industrialization and led to increased agitation for OLD-AGE PENSIONS and allowances for civilian widows, deserted wives and their children as well as family allowance. In 1916 Manitoba was the first province to pass a Mothers' Pensions Act to provide a small but assured income to widows and divorced or deserted wives with children to support, deemed the "worthy poor." Within 5 years, all provinces from Ontario west had passed similar legislation. Called "public assistance," the help was based on a means test and constituted a modern version of the English poor law.
In 1919 the federal Liberal Party pledged to pass legislation on health insurance, contributory old-age pensions and unemployment insurance. None of these promises were kept, with the BNA Act cited as the main impediment. But business interests which funded the 2 major political parties were even more of a hindrance.
To respond to the popular agitation for social legislation and to circumvent the BNA Act, the federal government devised the conditional grant, which enabled it to initiate programs by offering to share the cost of various categories of public assistance with the provinces, who would also be responsible for the administration (see INTERGOVERNMENTAL FINANCE). Under this arrangement the first old-age pension program was introduced in 1927. In 1937 pensions for the blind were added - both examples of restricting aid to the "worthy poor." Programs of this type were subject to a strict and often humiliating means test - further proof that poor-law attitudes still influenced this rudimentary form of social security.
The Great Depression - 1929-39
The GREAT DEPRESSION seared Canadian society. Thousands of formerly independent Canadians joined the public welfare rolls. The federal government was compelled to become involved in the massive problem of unemployment relief, previously a purely local concern. The 1930 programs to relieve poverty and destitution were essentially left over from the 19th-century poor-relief systems of municipal aid supplemented by voluntary charitable agencies. Rather than cash, assistance was granted in the form of grocery, fuel and clothing orders. Single, unemployed men were herded into military-style camps reminiscent of the 19th-century poorhouse (see UNEMPLOYMENT RELIEF CAMPS).
In Alberta nonstatus Indians and Métis could only collect welfare on "halfbreed" agricultural colonies. By 1939 a majority of Canadians realized that it was the economic and social systems that had failed and not the individuals or families.
WWII and Plans for Social Security
WWII solved Canada's unemployment problem, and the federal government, heretofore paralyzed in the face of the social and economic catastrophe of the Great Depression, was able to move with dispatch to organize and finance the war effort. This marked change in government assertiveness was not lost on Canadians. They wanted more positive government action and the political party most in favour of a bigger role for government - the CCF - enjoyed increased electoral success in BC, Saskatchewan and Ontario.
The Unemployment Insurance Act of 1940
An attempt to introduce a similar measure in 1935 failed because it was ultra vires the constitution. In 1940 the federal government, after securing the necessary amendment to the BNA Act, introduced the Unemployment Insurance Act, which represented a sea-change in Canadian social security arrangements.
Unemployment Insurance was Canada's first national social-insurance program (Workmen's Compensation programs were provincial initiatives covering a much smaller segment of the work force for work-related injury, sickness and death). When faced with unemployment, a Canadian could now claim the UI benefit rather than having to go cap-in-hand to the municipal welfare office.
The program's introduction in 1940 was linked to the mobilization of manpower, a key element in the war effort. The war effort also resulted in the appearance of the Marsh report of 1943, part of the federal government's plans for postwar reconstruction, and also a morale-building exercise for a country that was experiencing full employment and whose people were telling the politicians that a return to the conditions of the 1930s following the war would not be tolerated.
The Report on Social Security for Canada (the Marsh report) provided a blueprint for a comprehensive social-security system built upon a foundation of full employment. It emphasized the use of contributory social insurance to protect the worker against a range of risks to income complemented by a universal system of public health insurance. Although the report had caught the imagination of the country, it was too radical for the federal government, which proceeded to bury it. One suggestion from the Marsh report was selected as a plank for the Liberal Party in the federal election expected in 1945. Thus the introduction of Family Allowances in 1945 helped the Liberals to another 5 years as government (see FAMILY ALLOWANCE). Abandoning the Marsh report also meant abandoning the need for a carefully integrated system of income protections aimed at raising living standards, supported by job training and a government commitment to full employment.
In 1945 the federal government offered its own social-security plan (the Green Book proposals) to the provinces. References to the Marsh report were conspicuous in their absence. In a squabble over revenue-sharing the 2 levels of government abandoned the plan, which included a cost-shared medical and hospital insurance scheme, federal assumption of old-age pensions at age 70 and a cost shared plan for pensions at ages 65-69, plus federal responsibility for those unemployed who could not qualify for UI benefits.
Parts of the Green Book proposals were resurrected in 1951, when a universal old-age pension at age 70 was instituted, replacing the 1927 legislation and the hated means-test. However a cost-sharing agreement to pay a needs-tested old-age pension to Canadians age 65-69 kept 19th-century poor-law attitudes alive until they were gradually expunged beginning in 1965. What governments were doing at this time was simply filling in the gaps in Canada's social-security system, in response to the strongest political pressure groups. Any notion of comprehensive, coordinated social-security planning was abandoned, and the system grew haphazardly, largely in response to the political winds of the day.
Hospital and Medial Care Insurance
Access to health care, always a problem for the poor, became a problem for a majority of Canadians during the Great Depression. There was considerable agitation for health insurance at that time. The Liberal Party of Canada had promised action on this issue in 1919.
Saskatchewan's highly successful hospital insurance plan, which covered every Saskatchewan resident, was launched in 1945. It prompted residents in other provinces to seek similar protection. In 1957 the federal government agreed to share in the cost of provincial hospital insurance programs, and by 1961 all 10 provinces had provided them. The charity ward of hospitals vanished overnight, but doctors' bills were still beyond the means of many people. The Saskatchewan government, again a pioneer, introduced a universal, tax-supported, publicly administered medical care insurance plan in 1962, the first province or state in North America to do so.
In 1966, the federal government passed the Medical Care Act, according to which it would contribute to provincial medical-care insurance plans provided that such plans met the central federal goal of ensuring universal coverage to provincial residents for a comprehensive range of general practitioner and specialist services, available to all regardless of age or condition or ability to pay, and upon uniform terms and conditions. By 1971 all provinces were participating under the terms of the legislation (see HEALTH POLICY).
Action to Improve Pensions
Earlier, in 1965, the federal government had passed the CANADA PENSION PLAN, which provided social-insurance protection for retirement, disability and the provision of survivors' benefits. The plan, designed to improve the adequacy of old-age pensions, was also an acknowledgement that a majority of workers were not protected by an occupational pension plan. A national program (with the exception of Québec, which legislated the equivalent QUÉBEC PENSION PLAN), it meant that workers did not lose their membership when changing jobs or moving to another province. The compulsory plan covers almost the entire labour force. It was also the first Canadian social-security program to provide for automatic increases in benefits in accordance with increases in the cost of living (see OLD-AGE PENSION).
A Rediscovery of Poverty
A Senate inquiry in 1969 revealed that 1 in 4 Canadians lived below the poverty line and that close to 2 million of these were working poor - people whose income from employment was insufficient to lift them out of poverty. Saskatchewan (1974), Québec (1979) and Manitoba (1980) began to supplement the income of working-poor families subject to income and asset tests. A federal proposal to share the cost of an income-supplement scheme for working-poor families in 1975 was rejected by the provinces as being too expensive. In effect, very little was done for the working poor and concern for children growing up in poverty continued to be a matter of great concern.
Social Security in the 1980s
The 1980s proved to be a testing time for Canada's social-security system. The decade began with double-digit inflation followed by the most severe economic recession (1981-83) since the 1930s. The result was high unemployment, reduced economic growth, a sharp decline in tax revenue with a corresponding increase in government deficits. These circumstances led provincial and federal governments to carefully scrutinize spending on social-security programs and put forward cost-containment proposals. Universal programs such as family allowance and old-age pensions were viewed by some as extravagant in the existing economy, and there were calls for cutbacks to unemployment insurance even as the national rate of unemployment exceeded 11%. Proposals to redesign Canadian social security began to appear.
A 2-Tier System for Medicare?
In the opinion of many observers, the medicare system's goal of providing unfettered access to a comprehensive range of medical services was being increasingly jeopardized in the early 1980s by the practice of extra billing by doctors and the imposition of hospital user fees by some provinces. These practices represented an attempt to compensate for the increasing stringency of both federal and provincial health budgets.
In 1984, with the support of all political parties, the federal government acted to stem the erosion of universal accessibility by passing the Canada Health Act, which reasserted the principle of universal access by requiring the provinces, as a condition for receiving the federal share of provincial health-care costs, to eliminate hospital user fees and extra billing by physicians within 3 years or suffer a financial penalty equal to the amount collected in extra charges. By 1987, the Canada Health Act had largely achieved its aim. Although the proponents of extra billing and hospital user fees claimed that health care costs were out of control and additional revenue was needed, a review of public spending on health care by a federal royal commission in 1984 revealed the relative stability of public spending in this sector since the inception of medicare.
Furthermore, health economists argued that a better allocation of existing resources was possible and opportunities for savings were identified. This attempt to introduce a 2-tier system of medical care in Canada, one paid by private dollars, the other by public funds which, judging by experience in both the UK and the US, means a first-class service in the private sector for those with sufficient resources and a steadily deteriorating service in the public sector for the majority, was rebuffed by the Canadian public. The Canadian system of medicare remains, by long odds, the most popular social program in the country.
Inflation and Pensions
The impact of double-digit inflation beginning first in the mid-1970s and continuing until the early 1980s had a serious impact on people living on fixed incomes. As one result, old-age pension policy became a major public issue. A variety of concerns were nationally debated: a reported increase in poverty among the elderly and particularly among single, elderly women; concern for the cost of future pensions given the aging of the Canadian population; the need for pension policy to recognize the changing role of women; and, perhaps the most contentious issue, the failure of a great majority of the more than 14 000 private pension plans, covering some 4.1 million workers, to index pension benefits to the cost of living, as do public pensions.
Labour unions, welfare organizations, women's groups, the Québec and Saskatchewan governments and a report by a senate committee advocated improvements in the public pension system and the adoption of higher standards of performance for private pensions, including full indexing to the cost of living.
Business groups, the pension industry, and the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia supported a private market approach to retirement pensions and opposed any expansion of the public pension system. Private pension representatives also disagreed on the amount of regulation required by private pension plans and suggestions that they be indexed to the cost of living were firmly rejected.
When the rate of inflation declined in 1983, the pressure for reform of the pension system eased and no substantive changes occurred. A federal government attempt to reduce its deficit in 1984 by partially de-indexing the Old Age Security benefit failed when pensioner organizations successfully lobbied Ottawa in opposition. To deal with the issue of old-age pensioners living in poverty, the federal government raised the Guaranteed Income Supplement by $50 a month. A similar strategy of partially de-indexing Family Allowances and the Child Tax Credit and raising the income-tested Child Tax Credit was implemented by the federal government in 1985 (see FAMILY ALLOWANCES).
An Unsuccessful Attempt to Reform Unemployment Insurance
Unemployment insurance was the subject of a federal commission of inquiry in the 1980s. Unusually high rates of unemployment magnified the costs of this program, while concern was expressed by representatives of business that the very existence of UI was contributing to the unemployment rate. The majority report of the commission took a similar view and recommended a series of changes aimed at cutting back on benefits which, it argued, encouraged people to remain on UI longer than necessary. The majority report also recommended that some of the $3 billion to be saved by cutting benefits be transferred into worker retraining and relocation programs as well as wage subsidy programs.
A minority report took an opposing view and argued that the unemployment rate reflected a scarcity of jobs and slow economic growth and was unrelated to individual motivation. It urged that UI be made easier to qualify for and that benefits should be increased. The commission's report was issued in November 1986, but as the majority report's main proposals were so contentious the report was subsequently shelved.
A Guaranteed Annual Income?
A plan to comprehensively redesign Canada's social-security system emerged in 1984 as part of the report of the Royal Commission on the ECONOMIC UNION AND DEVELOPMENT PROSPECTS FOR CANADA. The report contended that in the years remaining in the 20th century, Canada would be forced to undergo major economic changes, resulting in dislocation for many Canadian workers, and that the social security system should be redesigned to reflect this eventuality.
The commission recommended a comprehensive guaranteed income plan, called the Universal Income Security Program, to be financed and administered by the federal government and which would pay, as one option, $3875 per year for all adults and for the first child of a single parent family, and $765 for other children (providing a family of 4, with no other income, $9150 per year). The program would be financed by eliminating some existing social-security programs and certain tax concessions. As a 1984 income of $9150 is 55% below the poverty line for a family of four living in a large urban centre, the provinces would be expected to add to the guarantee for those individuals and families without other means of supplementing their federal benefit. Earned income, it was suggested, might be taxed back at a 20% rate. These proposals, termed "radical, not cosmetic" by the commission, were deemed too radical by the politicians and shelved. However, a variation on this idea may be part of Canada's social-security future as the supply of permanent, full-time employment decreases.
Social Security in Canada - A Receding Tide
The tide of social-security advances in Canada reached its high point in 1971 with the revision of the Unemployment Insurance Act, which extended its coverage and liberalized its benefits. Since then, the social-security system has been in retreat. A slowdown in the economy, rising inflation rates, reduced government revenues and higher than expected social-security outlays to pay for welfare and UI benefits, and the steadily growing army of retired Canadians led to a campaign orchestrated by the business and corporate sector for sharp cuts to public expenditure.
The direction of these cuts and their overall purpose in improving the Canadian economy was laid out by the Conservative government in Ottawa in 1984. The government identified 4 weaknesses in Canada's social-security system: the level of spending was too high; programs were not sufficiently targeted to those in greatest need; public assistance had become a substitute for earned income; and income security programs have weakened work incentives and self-reliance.
From this perspective, the government moved to eliminate universality in family allowances and old-age security. In 1989 the government introduced a "clawback" to both universal programs that required upper-income families to repay all of their benefits. The same applied to the highest-income seniors. In 1992 Family Allowances and the Refundable Child Tax Credit were replaced by a new Child Tax Benefit that provided a tax-free monthly income, per child, based upon family net income as reported in the preceding year's tax return. Maximum benefits were directed at low- and moderate-income families with the benefit gradually being taxed away as family income rose above the ceiling of $25 921 (average family income in 1992 was $38 565).
The Liberals, on their return to power in 1993, completed the sweep against universality by announcing in 1996 that the Old Age Security program would be replaced by an income-tested Seniors Benefit in the year 2001. The exception to this shift away from universality appears to be Canada's most popular social-security program and the one which remains untouchable, politically speaking. Yet a decade ago, people were saying much the same thing about Family Allowance and Old Age Security.
Renewing Canada's Social Programs
In 1994, the new Liberal government in Ottawa released a discussion paper on suggestions for reforming Canada's system of social security. The primary targets of reform were the unemployment insurance system and federal support for provincial programs of health, welfare and higher education. Old-age pensions were not part of the discussion.
The central reform issue was how to improve opportunity and access to jobs for Canadians. It was the unemployed Canadian who was lacking - either training or motivation. The issue of motivation was blamed on passive income support programs such as unemployment insurance and social assistance. These programs must become more "active" in the forms of help offered. There was very little attention paid to job creation.
It appeared, from the government discussion paper, that it had adopted the same perceived weaknesses identified a decade earlier by Conservative predecessors.
A 2-Tiered System of Employment Insurance
In an Orwellian twist, the government decided to end the use of the term "unemployment insurance" and to substitute "employment insurance" instead. The new system of employment insurance, which came into effect 1 July 1996, involves separating claimants into "normal" and "frequent" users. The latter may suffer benefit reductions and possibly be subject to an income test, and receipt of benefit might be contingent on the claimant's willingness to take part in community work projects or training programs. This is no longer social insurance but a form of "workfare."
The Reform of Social Assistance
The Canada Assistance Plan (1966) was a cost-sharing scheme aimed a improving standards of provincial social-assistance programs, commonly known as "welfare." The CAP introduced national standards into public welfare for the first time: in return for federal funding of 50% of welfare costs, provinces had to agree to meet financial need regardless of cause and without a residence requirement. This brought an end to a confusing mix of program categories based on the poor law practice of separating the "worthy" from the "unworthy" poor, such as programs for the blind, the disabled, the elderly and the single mother with children. These were replaced with one program to meet financial need - provincial social assistance which also included the "unworthy" category, the able-bodied unemployed. An appeal procedure, a striking innovation in public assistance, was also a stipulation under the Canada Assistance Plan.
Effective 1 April 1996, 2 long-standing federal transfer programs were cancelled - Established Programs Financing which channelled federal money to provincial programs of health and higher education, and the Canada Assistance Plan through which Ottawa shared 50% of the costs of provincial social assistance and a wide range of related social services (in 1991 the Conservative government reduced its level of cost-sharing with Ontario, Alberta and BC as a cost-control measure). In their place is a single, block-funded arrangement, the Canada Health and Social Transfer, made up of cash payments and tax points but stringently reduced in volume by $7 billion over 2 years (1996-98). In addition, the CHST provides that the national standards associated with federal health funds will be maintained, but all but one of the CAP standards have been scrapped.
It will be up to the provinces to decide how to apportion their share of the reduced federal transfer. Some have already made the decision to cut social-assistance payments to Canada's poorest families and individuals - Ontario and Alberta - while BC has imposed a residence requirement of 3 months on all new applications for social assistance, in defiance of the federal government's one remaining standard from the CAP legislation (effective 1 December 1995). Cutting welfare benefits is politically easy if not advantageous, as the general view of POVERTY and its causation in Canada remains hostage to its 19th-century roots.
Since the spending cuts contained in the CHST began to hit provincially, the political protest has not been easily contained. Higher education and health care affect a much more vocal segment of the population. One concern by welfare advocates is that money will be siphoned from welfare to cool the anger of health and higher education supporters. Federal transfers with few strings attached is seen as a bid by Ottawa to placate Quebec nationalists who bridle at any interference in areas of provincial jurisdiction.
Is the Level of Spending on Social Security Too High?
When Canadian social security expenditures are compared with those of other advanced industrialized societies, Canada occupies a middle-range position. In relation to three family types: (a) a low-earning, sole-supported mother raising two children; (b) a family with a single, irregular breadwinner; and (c) a family with a long-term unemployed worker, public provisions are less generous under the Canadian system than in 8 other OECD countries.
A New Direction for Social Security in Canada
The developments in Canadian social security since the mid-1970s and in particular over the 1980s and 1990s is toward what R.M. Titmuss called the "handmaiden model of social policy" - that is, seeing social programs as primarily an adjunct to the economy. The flexibility of labour markets is one of the keys to prospering in today's global economy, Canadians are told. Any social program that inhibits this flexibility, such as overly generous unemployment insurance benefits or "passive" social assistance payments, must be appropriately adjusted.
According to the "handmaiden model" benefits are to be paid on the basis of "merit, work performance and productivity" rather than on the basis of human need. This is the view that has generated the new "employment insurance" measures, taking effect in 1996, which will penalize seasonal workers, even in areas of the country where there is no other kind of work to be had. It is also behind the concept of "workfare," an American idea now being imported into Canada, that requires social assistance recipients to work for their benefits or take some kind of job training. While job training is important, such programs under "workfare" have been criticized in the US for being substandard and offering little hope of leading to livable-wage employment. The idea of working for your welfare benefit caters to the notion that the poor are lazy and are using the safety net as a hammock. The experience of WWII should have ended this bigotry, when relief rolls melted away like snow before a chinook, as job opportunities blossomed because of the war effort.
A contrasting model of social security, one that is more commonly found in western European countries, is an integrative-redistribution model that provides universalist services to broad categories of need. This model has egalitarian goals that aim to lift individuals and families out of poverty and away from social exclusion.
Evidence of social exclusion in Canada abound - the homeless, Canadian children growing up in poverty, the clientele of food banks and the army of unemployed. The one shining example of a Canadian social security program which promotes inclusiveness and a sense of community is Canada's system of public, universal, prepaid health care.
Author DENNIS GUEST
C.Green et al, Unemployment Insurance: How To Make It Work (1994); Dennis Guest, The Emergence of Social Security in Canada (2nd ed, rev 1985); Linda McQuaig, Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and Other Canadian Myths (1995); Michael Rachlis and Carol Kushner, Strong Medicine: How to Save Canada's Health-Care System (1994); R.M. Titmuss, Social Policy: An Introduction (1974);
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