Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence

  Women and Social Assistance Policy in Saskatchewan and Manitoba


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Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence
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Winnipeg, MB
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The research and publication of this study were funded by the Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence (PWHCE). The PWHCE is financially supported by the Centre of Excellence for Women's Health Program, Bureau of Women's Health and Gender Analysis, Health Canada. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of the PWHCE or the official policy of Health Canada.

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Josephine Savarese, Department of Justice Studies, University of Regina


The Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence (PWHCE) Research Program on Poverty and Women's Health has supported several studies that examine the links between public policy, women's poverty and women's health.

In 2003, PWHCE initiated three research projects designed to examine income assistance policies in Saskatchewan and Manitoba and their effects on women's health. Reports from two of these projects were published in 2004: Don't We Count As People: Saskatchewan Social Welfare Policy and Women's Health and Surviving on Hope is Not Enough: Women's Health, Poverty, Justice and Income Support in Manitoba. These two studies were based on several focus groups held in each province and were designed to bring forward the voices and perspectives of those most directly affected by income assistance policies. As Wharf and MacKenzie have noted, "the knowledge and experience gap between those who make policy and those who must live with the consequences is enormous."1 The research helps bridge that gap by providing an important critique of income assistance policies from the perspectives of women living on welfare. The women's descriptions of their experiences reveal the inadequacy of income assistance benefits and the harmful effects on their physical and emotional health. According to the women:
A person needs more money to live. They can't live off what Social Services are paying. It's not enough. They should pay full rent, plus more for food and that, because food's so high, rent's so high, and you can't make it from cheque to cheque. You run out of everything. 2

You can't eat properly because you can't afford to. 3

Sometimes it was very stressful. My cheques were late and the weekend came along - no groceries in the house. I can't let my kids starve. You know, if I starve myself that's okay, but the kids mean more to me. 4

Being depressed all the time, being anxious all the time. If I don't do this and don't do that, they're going to cut me off. Then I get anxiety attacks.5
This report completes the initial series on income assistance policies and women's health in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Here we gain an understanding of the policy context which shaped the women's experiences described in the earlier papers. This publication provides an analysis of the broad context of federal and provincial initiatives to redesign income security programs since the demise of the Canada Assistance Plan in 1995.

The first paper, Income Assistance Policies in Saskatchewan and Manitoba: Implications for Women, by Josephine Savarese and Bonnie Morton, provides a critical analysis of changes in income assistance policies in two prairie provinces. During the past decade, federal and provincial governments have introduced significant changes in Canadian social policy that have weakened social citizenship rights to income security. Despite a growing acknowledgement of the importance of income and social policies as determinants of health, provincial income assistance programs have been designed to provide minimal benefits that keep many individuals and families struggling to meet basic needs on incomes far below the poverty line.

Access to Justice: Social Assistance Advocacy in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, by Bonnie Morton and Josephine Savarese, the second paper, provides a description of advocacy services which help people on social assistance receive the benefits to which they are entitled. While some advocacy services are available in both provinces, access is limited and women on income assistance face numerous obstacles when they wish to challenge decisions affecting their income and entitlements.

Together these two papers make an important contribution to our understanding of the links between public policy and women's poverty. They remind us that women are more likely to live in poverty, and more likely to rely on income assistance for a variety of reasons. They demonstrate ways in which some policies may put women at a particular disadvantage. They call for policies that will lead to equitable outcomes for women and men by taking gender differences into account. They challenge us to go beyond a critique of current policies and look for policy alternatives that will provide income security as a basic human right.

Together low-income women, social justice advocates, policy analysts and researchers have helped to articulate a new vision for income security programs that would promote health and human development and be responsive to the needs of women (and men) from diverse communities. Their recommendations for change need to be heard. Research on women's poverty is not an end it itself; hopefully, this new knowledge will be a catalyst for action to redesign social programs and reduce women's poverty.

Kay Willson
Research Manager,
Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence
May 2005

1Brian Wharf and Brad MacKenzie. Connecting Policy and Practice in Social Welfare. (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998) at 5.

2 Statement made by a focus group participant, as reported in Mildred Kerr, Debbie Frost and Diane Bignell. Don't We Count as People? Saskatchewan Social Welfare Policy and Women's Health. (Winnipeg: Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence, 2004) at 33.

3Ibid at 12.

4Statement made by a focus group participant, as reported in Rhonda Wiebe and Paula Keirstead. Surviving on Hope is Not Enough: Women's Health, Poverty, Justice and Income Support in Manitoba. (Winnipeg: Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence, 2004) at 5.

5Ibid at 6.

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