Copyright Maureen Baker, 1996. One copy of this paper can be made for the purpose of personal, non-commercial use, subject to proper attribution to the author.

Poverty, Ideology and the Employability of Mothers : A Comparison of Canadian and Australian Social Policies


Professor Maureen Baker

Visiting Fellow
University of Bristol
Centre for Family Policy and Child Welfare
8 Woodland Road
Bristol, UK BS8 1TN

(Permanent Address:
McGill University
School of Social Work
Montreal, Canada
H3A 2A7)


A similar trend is apparent in both Australian and Canadian social programs to enhance work incentives and program effectiveness, but the Canadian provinces are increasingly insisting that low-income mothers with school-age children should enter the labour force rather than accept social benefits. In Canada, there is no counterpart to the Sole Parent Pension, and little public support for the idea that low-income mothers should care for their children at home at the taxpayer's expense. This paper discusses the differences in rhetoric and social policy relating to low-income mothers, and seeks reasons for the stronger social support for mothering in Australia.

Although the current discourse of economic rationalism suggests that enhancing work incentives and 'employability' will bring prosperity, this paper illustrates that neither paying mothers to care for their children at home nor pushing them into the labour market has reduced high poverty rates among sole mothers. In order to make employability programs more effective, governments need to deal with the earning disparities between mothers and fathers, the shortage and high cost of child care, and the lack of full-time permanent jobs.

In the past decade, many industrialized countries have restructured the welfare state to reduce public expenditures and promote program effectiveness (Mishra, 1990; Pierson, 1994; Castles, 1996; Myles, 1996). In some jurisdictions, entitlement to social programs has become conditional on the recipient's willingness to retrain, to search for work and to re-enter the labour force. Consequently, some governments have shifted the rhetoric of social program eligibility away from 'guaranteed annual income', 'social security' and 'citizenship rights', towards viewing social benefits as temporary, based on 'need' and designed to encourage 'self-sufficiency' and 'employability'.

In Canada, the new emphasis on 'employability' tends to dwell on the improvement of individual characteristics, such as educational achievement, employment skills, work habits, ability to write resumés, interviewing skills and attitudes in order to find paid work (Canada, 1994). What the concept downplays is the availability of work, family responsibilities that might interfere with full-time employment, the availability of child care, and any idea of social responsibility for children.

In Canada, as in Australia, whether or not low-income citizens were paid a social benefit without a 'work test' or were encouraged to enter the labour force used to consider their responsibility for dependent children. Now, social policy reforms are requiring or encouraging paid employment for a wider group of citizens, including mothers with dependent children. The prevalent view in the Canadian press, popular discourse, and government policy seems to be that everyone who is able to work for pay should do so. In fact, a 1994 Gallup Poll reported that 86% of Canadians are in favour of making people on welfare go to work (Torjman, 1996). Furthermore, caring for one's own children at home is no longer considered to be real 'work' in Canada (although it is considered to be 'work' to care for someone else's children). Reliance on social security programs is once again referred to as 'dependence' (although reliance on a husband's income is not), and increasingly is considered unacceptable behaviour, as it was earlier in this century. Unlike Australia, there is little discussion in Canada about giving mothers the choice to raise their children at home.

In this paper I want to highlight the differences in discourse and policy between Australia and Canada, and to attempt to explain why state support for mothering is more acceptable in Australia. In order to do this, I will draw on demographic, economic, and political factors influencing social policy. First of all, however, I want to outline three historical periods for the employability of low-income mothers in Canada (Lord, 1994).

Social Assistance and Employability of Mothers in Canada

At the turn of the century, public welfare expenses were financed largely by municipal governments and charities, with some assistance from provincial governments and smaller amounts from the federal government (Ursel, 1992:170). As early as 1920, some Canadian provinces began paying Mothers Allowances to those low-income widows and deserted mothers who were considered to be morally worthy or 'deserving' (Little, 1995). Until the 1960s, low-income mothers, especially single ones, were viewed in these social assistance programs as 'unemployable' or long-term recipients. Yet benefits were low by today's standards and if a woman had a male provider living with her, her welfare benefits were cut off.

Before the 1960s, few efforts were made to address women's employment aspirations or needs because her job was considered to be childrearing and homemaking (Lord, 1994). Female labour force participation rates were low, especially for mothers with preschool children. Furthermore, the percentage of lone mothers was also low until the divorce law was liberalized in 1968 and until more single women kept their babies in the 1970s and 1980s. Also, few part-time jobs were available to enable mothers to combine childrearing with paid employment, so when lone mothers were employed, they tended to work full-time (Lord, 1994).

In 1966, the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP) was created, in which the federal government agreed to pay 50% of provincial welfare costs. In order to receive the federal money, provincial programs had to pay benefits to all persons 'in need', they had to provide an appeal procedure, and they could not ask beneficiaries to work for pay in order to be eligible for their benefits.

As Canadian divorce rates skyrocketted throughout the 1970s, concern grew about the 'feminization of poverty' as increasing numbers of lone mothers relied on social benefits. Yet welfare mothers were not asked to enter the labour force or prove that they were looking for work. Instead, social service workers classified them as 'unemployable' if they had preschool children (or even older children in some provinces). This label enabled them to receive higher benefits than someone who was expected to find a paid job, although these benefits are below the poverty line in all provinces (NCW, 1995).

From the 1960s to the 1980s, many lone mothers worked in the labour force as the service sector expanded and part-time jobs were created, but experienced considerable difficulty becoming self-sufficient. Women's average wages were lower than men's, employees were not eligible for family leave except at child birth, and federal family benefits were too low to influence incomes and keep mothers out of poverty. Consequently, many lone mothers lived below the poverty line and relied on social assistance. Mothers sometimes worked part-time, but usually did so in the underground economy because tax back rates on welfare payments were typically as high as 75% to 100% after a small amount that was disregarded (Dooley, 1995). Furthermore, the enforcement of court-ordered child support was left to the custodial parent (usually the mother) with little government assistance.

In 1984, the Conservatives won the federal election and increasingly focused on 'new right' ideologies and policies. More emphasis was placed on labour force participation and 'employability' for all welfare recipients, including single mothers and persons with disabilities. In 1985, the federal and provincial governments agreed to modify CAP to allow the provinces to add work incentives to social assistance programs, but programs continued to be based on 'need' and 'workfare' was prohibited. In addition, the Canadian Job Strategy program involved privatising much of the money for skills training that was formerly channelled through provincial governments (Lord, 1994).

Throughout the 1980s, the Conservative government continued to restructure the welfare state, explicitly saying that they were 'modernizing' social programs, but also adding that they were making them more 'efficient and cost-effective'. Tax concessions for children were gradually targeted to low-income children, 'to reduce child poverty'. The federal government proposed a National Strategy on Child Care, including higher tax deductions for employed parents and a new program for funding child care. Initially, this appeared to be an exception to the Conservative agenda of cutting social expenditures. Yet the new program to create a special funding arrangement for child care failed to pass through the Senate when it became apparent that fewer subsidies would eventually be available in most provinces and that tax-payers' money would be financing for-profit child care (Baker, 1995:202).

By the end of the 1980s, most provinces had also tightened up their child support enforcement procedures, focusing on 'making fathers pay' and catching 'dead-beat dads' or fathers who defaulted on their payments. The rhetoric surrounding these reforms were both 'enforcing parental responsibilities' and 'reducing child poverty'. In reality, however, these programs were designed to save social assistance money. Unlike in Australia, none of the new enforcement schemes in Canada allows mothers on social assistance to keep any of the child support money paid by the father. This means that although the provincial government saves money, welfare women and their children are no better off financially and child poverty is not reduced.

During the 1980s, the costs of social assistance continued to rise with high divorce and unemployment rates. The (Conservative) federal government expressed considerable concern about the high and unpredictable cost of the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP). Because they had promised to pay 50% of provincial social assistance expenditures, future federal funding for welfare depended on the level of provincial expenditures. Yet the federal government was unable to renegotiate this agreement. In 1990, their frustration led them to curb increases to three provinces considered to be 'wealthy' (Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario). This meant that rising welfare expenditures were off-loaded onto these provinces and that federal spending for social assistance remained 50% in some provinces while it declined to 20-30% in these three. The three provinces all responded by tightening eligibility for welfare or reducing benefit levels, arguing that they could no longer afford such 'generous' benefit levels considering the reductions in federal transfers.

In 1993, the Conservative government also ended the universal Family Allowances (created in 1945), and developed a new Child Tax Benefit with money from the allowance and the child tax credits. This new benefit was targeted to middle and low income families in order to 'reduce child poverty', and an additional bonus of $500 per year was paid to the working poor as a 'work incentive'. Yet the poorest families (receiving provincial social assistance) did not receive more money because the federal government surmised that any federal increases to welfare recipients would be taken away by their provincial government, such was the state of federal-provincial relations.

By the 1993 federal election, the Canadian people were becoming concerned about cutbacks to social programs and rising unemployment. The Conservatives were soundly voted out of office and left with only two seats in the House of Commons. The Liberals won the election with the slogan 'Jobs! Jobs! Jobs' and took over the government, but it was soon apparent that the trend toward economic rationalism would continue.

Soon after taking office, the Liberals merged government departments to place responsibility for income security in the same department as employment programs. They also began a Social Security Review, emphasizing their intent to make 'improvements' and 'to modernize' social programs (Canada, 1994). Yet this review was overshadowed and eventually truncated by severe budget cuts.

By far the most consequential policy change affecting welfare mothers, however, came in April 1996 when the CAP agreement ended and was not renewed by the (Liberal) federal government. Instead, the federal government reduced transfers to the provinces and began paying one block grant for social assistance, medicare and tertiary education. This new program, called the Canada Health and Social Transfer, removes most of the federal restrictions for welfare programs, allowing the provinces to introduce 'workfare' (Mendelson, 1995).

Despite this major program reduction, public opposition was relatively weak for several reasons. As in 1993 when the Family Allowance was abolished, Canada was in the midst of another national unity crisis in 1995 with the Quebec sovereignty referendum. Concern that Quebec was going to separate from Canada preoccupied the nation for months, to the neglect of other policy issues. Second, the official opposition is the separatist party (Bloc Québecois), and although they support stronger social programs, they also insist on decentralization of powers to the provinces (or at least to Quebec). Third, the political left, which has traditionally supported strong social programs, was seriously weakened in the 1993 federal election. And fourth, the ultra-right party which is gathering power in the west (The Reform Party of Canada) continues to favour decentralization of powers, cuts to social programs and lower taxes.

The establishment of the CHST means that the provinces are looking for ways to reduce their expenditures. Among other options, provincial governments are encouraging or forcing more people formerly considered to be 'unemployable' to enter the labour force. Not all provinces specify when they considered a welfare mother with dependent children to be employable, but most encourage mothers into the labour force when their youngest child reaches school age (five or six years) although there is considerable provincial variation. Alberta (with an ultra-right government) has recently specified that mothers are 'employable' when their youngest child is six months old, while in British Columbia (with a left-leaning NDP government), a welfare mother is 'employable' when her youngest child is twelve years old (NCW, 1995). Furthermore, the more conservative provincial governments are cutting benefit levels for welfare. For example, the ultra-right government in Ontario cut welfare benefits, including those for sole mothers, by 22% in 1995 (Evans, 1996).

These cutbacks have coincided with a rise in provincial welfare caseloads. Divorce rates have remained high since the 1980s, and nearly half of divorced mothers cannot support themselves through paid work and need to rely on social assistance. Unemployment rates have hovered around 10% for several years, yet eligibility for federal unemployment insurance benefits have been tightened, forcing more people to rely on provincial social assistance benefits. At the same time, there is more acknowledgement of the need to provide social assistance to women and children from abusive homes.

One motivation to increase work incentives relates to the fact that in the early 1990s, a lone parent would receive a higher income on welfare than from full-time market work at the minimum wage in all provinces except Quebec (NCW, 1993). This does not mean that welfare benefits are generous, but rather that Canadian minimum wages have not increased as fast as either average wages or social assistance rates. Another concern is that lone mothers stay on social assistance longer than other categories of recipients and often experience repeat spells of welfare. While the median spell on welfare is six months for lone mothers, it is only three months for couples and four months for single individuals (Dooley, 1995).

Young lone mothers used to have a higher chance of being employed than married mothers in 1973 but not in 1991. Now, lone mothers are less likely than married mothers to be employed in Canada, despite their greater need for employment income. This probably relates to the fact that employment growth has been in part-time jobs, but only those with a second income can survive on part-time earnings. Lone mothers need full-time earnings to survive. Because they can receive more income from welfare than from part-time wages, they make a rational decision to maximize their income by accepting welfare benefits or by working full-time. At least in the past, they were not permitted to work for more than a few hours a week whilst receiving welfare benefits.

Australia/Canada Comparisons

In Canada, there is no counterpart to the Australian Sole Parent Pension (SPP), even though the percentage of lone parents is slightly higher in Canada than in Australia (20-21% of Canadian families with children (Statistics Canada, 1996) compared to 18% in Australia in 1994 (ABS, 1994)). In Canada, there are only provincially-set welfare benefits for people considered to be 'unemployable', and mothers with young children sometimes fall into this category. But Canadian welfare is highly stigmatized compared to the Australian pension. Furthermore, Canadian benefit levels vary considerably by province (depending on resources and political ideology) but are usually well below government-established poverty lines.

In 1991, 44% of Canadian lone mothers received some income from 'welfare' (Dooley, 1995), while in the same year 83% of lone parents in Australia received the SPP. In 1996, while Canadian welfare rates are falling, Australian pensioners have increased to 89% of sole parents (Australia, DSS, 1996). However, it is possible that more of the Australian pensioners are also working part-time.

Although there is a similar trend toward work incentives and employability in Australian social programs, it is less pronounced with respect to low-income mothers. The introduction of the SPP in 1988 reduced the duration that recipients can receive this benefit, but the age is still sixteen years for the youngest child. This is considerably above the six years in much of Canada (and the six months in Alberta). Also, the JET program provides voluntary counselling to pensioners on the availability of education, training and employment, as well as access to child care. But there is no work requirement attached to the SPP until the youngest child approaches sixteen years.

In explaining these policy differences, we need to examine in more detail labour force characteristics, prevailing ideologies, and political forces in both countries. First of all, labour force participation rates of Australian women have historically been lower for Canadians and remain lower, and Australian women are far more likely to be working part-time. About 75% of Canadian women compared to 60% of Australian women worked full-time by the end of the 1980s (O'Connor, 1993). In 1995, about 44% of Australian sole mothers (ABS, 1995) were employed compared to 57% of Canadian sole mothers (Statistics Canada, 1996). While in Australia, about 50% of employed sole mothers work full-time, about 80% of Canadians do. Because full-time labour force participation rates are so much higher in Canada, there is more government and public support for child care than in Australia (Baker, 1995: 212).

The concept of the 'family wage' was institutionalized in Australia and New Zealand in a way that it never was in Canada (Baker & Robeson, 1981; Castles, 1996). Australian unions fought for this concept, which kept men's wages higher in this country than in most others but essentially excluded married women and mothers from the paid labour force. In Australia, the union movement has been, and still is, a much stronger force in public policy formulation than in Canada, and the alliance between the unions and the Labor Party was more effective than the alliance between the Canadian unions and the New Democratic Party (NDP). Furthermore, the NDP has never won a federal election before and has been less able to influence Canadian public policy.

Because of the family wage concept and other cultural pressures emphasizing a maternal role for women, more Australian than Canadian social programs see women as men's dependents. For example, Australia unemployment benefits were only recently reformed to view married women as individual beneficiaries rather than the dependents of unemployed men, but in Canada, unemployment benefits have been based on individual entitlement since 1944 when the Unemployment Insurance program began.

Despite the relatively strong social support for mothering in Australia, international studies, especially those using the Luxembourg Income Study data base, have indicated that poverty rates for sole mothers are higher in Australia than in most OECD countries, including Canada. For example, Phipps (1996) indicates that about 53% of children living in Australian one-parent families were below the poverty line, compared to about 49% of Canadian children in one-parent families. These figures clearly indicate that the SPP has not been worth enough to resolve poverty among lone mothers, and has not counteracted the low full-time participation rates of Australian sole mothers.

The recent focus on 'employability' in Australia seems to have bypassed mothers more so than in Canada, and prevailing Australian attitudes still acknowledge that the care of children and other dependents is a form of socially useful 'work' that should be supported by the state (Shaver et al, 1994). Canadians, on the other hand, have not accepted that the state should support mothers with school-aged children, but they have accepted three major ideas about mothers. First, employed mothers with new babies should be entitled to statutory parental benefits, and since 1971, Canadian mothers have been entitled to 15 weeks of maternity benefits paid through the federal Unemployment Insurance Program. In 1990, 10 weeks of parental benefits were added, which can be taken by either father or mother (but not both at the same time).

Secondly, Canadians have accepted that people with no other means of support are entitled to government support, and that welfare recipients with dependent children should be entitled to a higher benefit level than single individuals. Furthermore, they accept that these mothers should be exempt from work requirements, at least for a temporary period. Yet these higher benefits and the work exemption are usually limited to less than six years or even six months, but certainly not as long as sixteen years in Australia.

Thirdly, federal government funding of child care for low-income families has been provided in Canada since 1966 and relatively generous income tax concessions have been available since 1971 for employed parents using paid child care services (Baker, 1995). Nevertheless, the need for affordable and high-quality child care continues to outstrip the availability. But the prevailing attitude is that families need two incomes to survive, that day-time child care is a necessity for employed parents, and that group care often enhances the social development of preschool children. Canadian employers assume that employed mothers can find full-day substitute care through community services or the private sector if it is not available through their workplace. Nevertheless, employed mothers frequently express concerns about the availability and suitability of child care.


After twelve years of cutbacks in Canada, social policy is now being driven by economic policy. The focus on work incentives and employability is being used by right-wing governments to divert attention from structural unemployment, which it cannot deal with effectively. Furthermore, this focus on employability allows attention to move from the inadequacy of social programs to cope with changes in families and the labour force. Cutbacks in federal transfers to the provinces have forced the provincial governments to trim eligibility for many services, including social assistance. One way to do this is to encourage or force more recipients of social assistance to enter the labour force. This is exactly what is happening in Canada, but the implications for mothers may be counterproductive.

A strong emphasis on labour force participation for all citizens can be a relatively effective strategy to raise family income, reduce child poverty and promote gender equality. In Sweden, for example, such policies were successful because the government established public sector jobs with statutory protections, developed lengthy family leave policies, ensured pay equity, established an extensive system of public child care services and actively promoted gender equality (Baker, 1995). In Canada, work incentives and employability are promoted within a context of high unemployment, low minimum wages, little emphasis on job creation, a lack of full-time jobs with high wages and statutory protections, and a shortage of child care services. Under these cirumstances, forcing everyone into the labour force, including low-income mothers with preschool children, is unlikely to reduce family poverty or promote gender equity. It may reduce government expenditures on social assistance, but it will likely be at the expenses of creating an underclass of low-paid workers who are sporadically and marginally employed. Furthermore, the children of these low-income parents are likely to experience more social and health problems than those from higher-income families (Boyle, 1990; Gee, 1993). Yet in the present Canadian climate of economic cutbacks and uncertainty over national unity, the creation of new full-time jobs with 'living wages', increased statutory protections, and affordable child care is unlikely.

This comparison between Canada and Australia indicates that neither the Sole Parent Pension in Australia nor attempts to encourage the employment of mothers has resolved the issue of poverty among sole mothers. The Pension, however, has allowed mothers some choice to care for their children at home or to enter the labour force, and has also permitted them to receive the SPP and work part-time. Furthermore, it has avoided some of the pitfalls of expecting relatively unqualified people with family responsibilities to find their own jobs and child care in a competitive labour market. Yet it is relatively costly. Considering the prevailing ideologies of economic rationalism and the social policy changes in other countries, I believe that there will be future pressure to reduce the duration of the Sole Parent Pension and to place more emphasis on labour force participation for mothers with school-aged children. If this is so, low-income mothers in Australia need to fight for better family leave policies and child care facilities in order to avoid becoming an underclass, as are so many lone mothers in North America.


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