Lone Mothers Exiting Social Assistance: Gender, Social Exclusion and Social Capital
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After the North American wave of “welfare reform” in the 1990s, much research has measured the success of the work-to-welfare model. Lone mothers as a group have proved a particularly intractable challenge to policies aimed at moving welfare recipients into the labour market and financial independence. The present dissertation focuses on lone mother welfare recipients and explores the processes they live as they receive and attempt to leave social assistance. This research adds to current scholarship by identifying factors that promote or frustrate the process of exiting social assistance, and by examining the effectiveness of policies and programs aimed at integrating these welfare recipients into the labour market. Concentrating on the welfare regime in Ontario, this dissertation explores the experiences of a diverse sample of thirty lone mothers participating in Ontario Works, the provincially-mandated work-to-welfare program. Each lone mother was interviewed annually for a series of four interviews. Focus groups with caseworkers provided insight into the lone mothers’ processes of attempting to leave social assistance, highlighting the differences between program design and program delivery. The dissertation asks three overarching research questions: What is the role of the provincial welfare regime in transitioning lone mothers from receipt of social assistance to paid employment? How did the lone mothers’ lives change over the study period? What elements facilitated exiting social assistance and what elements acted as obstacles or barriers? The research and analysis are shaped by three theoretical lenses; gender, social exclusion and social capital. The results highlight that there is no predictive factor: no profile emerged of the lone mother most likely to achieve independence. The research identifies “stayers”, “leavers” and three additional groups: “blenders”, “traders”, and “betweeners,” and establishes that while many exit the welfare stream, few did so because of financial independence. These results point to substantial inadequacies in the provincial work-to-welfare programming in addressing the particular needs of lone mothers. Gender neutral policies proved to overlook the key aspects to lone mothers’ experiences, such as their caregiving responsibilities and the realities of a labour market that stratifies based on gender. Lone mothers were effectively excluded from programs designed to increase bridging and linking social capital; such programs are only available to recipients who have succeeded in eliminating their barriers to joining the labour market. Bonding social capital, which is not targeted by Ontario Works and which depends on the personal resources of each woman, emerges as the key determinant of success in exiting, as it allows the lone mothers to overcome the caregiving challenge. The research also indicates that those without bonding social capital are those most likely to be socially excluded from multiple social realms.
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