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Social policy, gender inequality and poverty

Lorraine Davies, Julie Ann McMullin
Department of Sociology, University of Western Ontario

William R. Avison
(Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Florida International University)

Gale L. Cassidy
University of Western Ontario

February 2001

Issued also in French under title: Politique sociale, disparitй entre les sexes et pauvretй.
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Executive summary

This study was motivated by the changes to the administration and funding of social programs across Canada since 1995—changes that were brought about by the introduction of the Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST). Taking into consideration the current social policy climate and the resulting modifications to economic security programs, we examine the predictors of low income among women and the life circumstances that led them into and out of poverty. We argue that choices about work and family are best understood within a lifecourse perspective that recognizes systemic gender inequality. Thus, we examine whether assumptions of gender neutrality within social policies inadvertently increase women’s economic insecurity by not taking their unique family and work experiences into account.

Our findings are based on three sources of data. First, we analyze data from the Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics (SLID), a nationally representative sample. These findings allow us to paint a picture of low income among women in broad strokes. A second set of findings is based on the analysis of a large community-based survey of married couples with children in London, Ontario. This survey over-sampled households that had experienced recent unemployment and asked detailed questions about childhood and adolescent adversities, allowing us to investigate, more specifically, how economic conditions and life history circumstances shape low income. Finally, we collected qualitative data from 60 mothers, 90 percent of whom had received social assistance at some point in their lives. From these life history narratives, we were able to elucidate the social processes that underlie transitions into and out of poverty over the life course. By exploring the impact of social policies on women’s economic security, and by outlining the life-course trajectories that are most likely to lead women to need social assistance, we provide new information to foster the development of policy initiatives to eradicate women’s poverty.

Our quantitative results generally find that being young, having less education, having more children and being a lone parent all increase a woman’s risk of poverty. Similarly, attachment to work and income source variables have relatively consistent influences on the likelihood of low income in the direction one would expect. We also find evidence to suggest that a partner’s work history is more important than a wife’s work history in influencing economic security.

Somewhat surprisingly, our quantitative results do not reveal a relationship between early adversities and low income in adulthood. This stands in contrast to other research and our qualitative results, which find that childhood experiences portend future economic circumstances. Among the 60 women interviewed in our qualitative sample, 53 needed social assistance at some point in their lives. When we examined the circumstances leading to this first period of assistance, three general patterns emerged. The first was related to the childhood experience of parental absence. The second was tied to the transitions to single motherhood. And the third had to do with the partner’s labour force attachment.

Four conclusions emerged from the analysis of the transitions that increase the need for social assistance.

  • Parental absence (broadly defined) is an adversity that makes it very difficult for children to acquire the social capital necessary to obtain life skills and education, each of which promotes economic security.
  • Unplanned pregnancies, particularly among young single women, disadvantage them economically and stem from a societal unwillingness to teach children about sex and birth control. Women need more knowledge and greater access to birth control so they have more control over their fertility.
  • The extent to which wife abuse is associated with separation and divorce and, therefore, poverty among women, appears to be overlooked and underestimated.
  • Relying on marriage as a means of financial security is riskier than gender and family ideologies would have us believe. In other words, social assistance benefits are a needed and valued safety net for women who face systemic barriers to economic independence.
When we consider the reasons for social assistance within a broader social context, it is apparent that the structural nature of gender and family relations reduces women’s income potential at multiple points throughout the life course. In a variety of ways, the gendered division of labour hinders educational and career attainment of girls and women, and ultimately discourages a strong attachment to the labour force among mothers. A sex-segregated labour market and the lack of a universal child-care system pose additional hurdles to women as they strive to provide for their families. Employment insurance (EI) and maternity benefits are virtually inapplicable to the economic security of low-income women because of their weak attachment to the labour force, including their segregation in low-paying, irregular and parttime jobs.

Until social policies address systemic gender inequality, neither marriage nor employment (alone or in combination) will be enough to reduce women’s economic insecurity significantly. Canadians should not underestimate the negative consequences of reducing social spending in favour of tax cuts. By undermining the economic security of women, these cuts put all families at risk of experiencing social, economic, mental and physical health hardships. The effects of these hardships on children are particularly worrisome because they will resonate throughout their lives, impairing their potential to be productive citizens of Canadian society. Until social policy embarks in new directions, women will continue to be at risk with regards to having a low income.

The findings from this study point to a variety of policy recommendations. To highlight, social policy changes are needed that target individuals during childhood, young adulthood and adulthood. Barriers to educational attainment would be reduced with:

  • greater visibility and access to family support organizations with a non-punitive mandate;
  • a greater emphasis within elementary and high school curriculums on family violence issues, sex education, birth control, and drug and alcohol abuse; and
  • increased government funding to shelters and second stage housing for abused women and children and improved awareness of these options.
Furthermore, to enhance access to education and employment among mothers, regardless of their age and marital status, there is an indisputable need for a national child-care system. We propose that such a system eliminate day-care costs for all low-income mothers, involve more fully subsidized spots, provide on-site, day-care facilities at all adult learning centres, colleges and universities, and provide services to infants as well as toddlers and preschool children. Finally, child-care centres should provide transportation, while workplaces and educational institutions should receive incentives to implement on-site, day-care centres.

More generally, social policies must take into consideration and value all of women’s contributions to child care and family life. A straightforward way of acknowledging these contributions would be to raise the standard of living for low-income families through increased benefits, including social assistance benefits. Moreover, the “employment incentives” emphasis on social assistance policies must be replaced with realistic employment expectations and meaningful opportunities. Finally, with respect to future generations of women, economic independence must be encouraged and supported, beginning in childhood.

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