Justice

The Catch-22 of single parents on welfare

Ann Silversides November 17 1980
Justice

The Catch-22 of single parents on welfare

Ann Silversides November 17 1980

The Catch-22 of single parents on welfare

Justice

Ann Silversides

If her landlady knew she was on welfare, Pam Inglis doubts she could have rented the small Toronto apartment she lives in with her four children. For Inglis—who is separated from her husband and taking courses to upgrade her Grade 8 education—the $275-a-month apartment was a find. Since she went on welfare IV2 years ago, the 37year-old has struggled to support her family on a total monthly budget of about $730. “Before this, I had a $350a-month apartment and I just couldn’t hold up. We were really doing without.” The price of the new apartment may be better, but the quarters are cramped: her three sons (14, 12 and nine years old) share one bedroom, while Inglis

sleeps with her 20-month-old daughter in the other bedroom. Far from being an exception, Inglis’ fight with poverty is all too common among single parents in this country.

With Canada’s divorce rate climbing steadily, more and more women are finding themselves raising their children alone. The risk of them living in poverty is extremely high. Already, one in 10 Canadian families is headed by only one parent, of whom 85 per cent are women. The daily existence of the vast majority is far removed from the popular stereotype of single parents put forward by movies like Kramer vs. Kramer, where middle-class professional parents talk over their anxieties with psychiatrists and perform amusing antics to meet family responsibili-

ties. For most real-life single parents the problem is not, like Kramer’s, whether to take a less stressful $20,000plus-a-year job, but rather how to make ends meet. Primarily because of limited and low-paying job opportunities, about half of Canada’s single parents are living below the poverty line.

The majority of this group ( a high 98 per cent are females) are on welfare. Too often, they are caught in a trap where it is much harder to get off welfare than to get on, with the Catch22 that if they do enter the work force and find substitute care for their children, the odds are against them substantially improving their income. Single parents now comprise a hefty chunk of all welfare recipients—about 40 per cent in most provinces—and provincial case loads of one-parent families increase annually.

While many single parents struggle to get by on low salaries, a depressing number find the obstacles to entering the work force almost overwhelming. According to a recent Alberta study, a typical single parent on welfare is a 30year-old woman who is separated from her husband and has one or two children and a Grade 10 education. Welfare mothers are especially disadvantaged when they want to get a job, since the wage scale for women in Canada is just slightly more than half of what it is for men. Heather Strachan, 28 and divorced, worked for 10 years before she went on welfare 18 months ago in Burnaby, B.C. With her Grade 11 education, Strachan says, she could never earn enough to support herself and her two preschoolers, especially in the face of high unemployment rates and a dearth of subsidized day and afterschool care.

Ironically, the welfare mother’s poor self-image and loneliness, stemming largely from the very fact of being on welfare, is the biggest hurdle to tackling the job market. “Going on social assistance is a put-down thing,” says Inglis. “The first thing you lose, and you lose it fast, is your self-worth.” Most often this hits at a hard time anyway, on the heels of a marriage breakup. “I lost a lot of confidence, trust and belief when my second marriage broke down,” says Geraldine Aldoff, 32, who lives in Calgary with her three sons and has a Grade 8 education. “I feel so alone. A while ago, I was phoning the crisis centre all the time to have someone to talk to.”

With the exception of a few smallscale projects, provincial governments have made little effort to tackle head on the particular problems of single parents on welfare. Because of their heavy case loads, social workers rarely have time to help the parents sort out their options. Aldoff, on welfare since last

March, has seen her social worker once. Yet if social workers are not always helpful, Strachan maintains that single parents get “a lot of harassment” from child welfare workers. One recent Quebec study showed that two-thirds of children taken from their homes were from low-income families. Strachan says some single parents do have problems raising their children, but insists the figures also reflect the prejudices of “middle-class and power-tripping social workers. If a social worker sees a bruise on your child and you have no explana-

tion, well look out Charlie.” For children who do need help, there is “terrible illogic” in the way they get it, concludes a 1979 National Council of Welfare report. The Ontario government last year expected a welfare mother with one child to live on less than $5,000 a year, the report notes. Yet it paid far more— from $6,877 to $12,866—for the child alone if he was taken to a foster or group home.

Raising a family is usually easier for a man by himself because of higher wage scales (only about 14 per cent of male single parents live below the poverty line, compared to 59 per cent of females) and more public support. “I get a lot of commendation. People in general are more supportive of a man doing this,” says Leonard Walker, 29, who is raising his seven-year-old daughter in Windsor, Ont. But law student Walker believes he faced sexual discrimination

in his fight to get long-term family benefits since able-bodied men in Ontario, unlike other provinces which do not distinguish between male and female single parents, must apply separately from women—and their eligibility must be approved by the provincial cabinet. Indeed, so restrictive and confusing is Ontario’s procedure for men that only 24 out of 47,414 single parents on longterm benefits are men who have received cabinet approval. Walker says he eventually got the benefits primarily because he is a law student and kicked up a fuss in the local media. “The present government,” he says angrily, “behaves in a shameful way.”

Lack of money is the No. 1 headache for single parents, and Strachan sees a national guaranteed annual income as the only long-term solution. But that idea, hotly debated in the past, is unlikely to gain public acceptance in the near future. In the meantime, Strachan would like to see welfare mothers receiving a recreation allowance for their children and more financial incentive to take part-time jobs. Strachan now receives $647 a month to support her family, but she says if she worked part-time she could keep only a maximum of $100 above her welfare benefits no matter how much she earned. The result of going to work, she argues, could be a net loss of income, since the $100 would have to go toward baby-sitting, transportation and suitable work clothes. A critical shortage of day and after-school care, as well as little accommodation for parents who do shift work, compound the problem for parents who do join the work force. Inglis argues that, in the short term, welfare benefits must at least come up to the poverty line. “But the most important thing is to give information to parents and educate them.”

Perhaps the most guilt-producing problem for some parents is the recognition that it is not only adults who have a difficult time on welfare. “It’s hard on the kids,” Inglis points out. “Being on social assistance takes a toll on mom anyway, and there is an awful lot of saying no to things like trips to the skating rink that cost 50 cents, attending birthday parties where gifts are expected and treats and new clothes.” Strachan now has trouble paying for items like toddler’s shoes and nonprescription drugs for her children when they are sick, but she says that the children themselves feel the impact when they start school. “The money is just not there for field trips or sports equipment.” And the children are affected in more subtle ways when parents like Aldoff are “worried sick that financially I don’t think I’m going to make it.” Says Strachan: “The children suffer and it is not their fault.”