Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Review: Criminalizing Race, Criminalizing Poverty

[Kiran Mirchandani and Wendy Chan. Criminalizing Race, Criminalizing Poverty: Welfare Fraud Enforcement in Canada. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2007.]

A few years ago I read (and reviewed) a neat little book by Henry Giroux which talked about Hurricane Katrina. The book struck me as a rare attempt to apply ideas with their origins in academia in an accessible, popular text. Now, it didn't feel like it worked all that well in that case, but I thought it was a great thing to try.

Criminalizing Race, Criminalizing Poverty is a very different book in many ways, but it strikes me as similar to the extent that it is an effort to experiment with ways to make important, critical ideas produced through academic processes accessible and useful to social movements. There isn't quite the same effort to stitch together academic ideas with a broad harvest of popular, muckraking reportage as in Giroux's book, and the form is quite conventionally academic in some respects. But it is very clear, very straightforward, and very tightly tied to experiences and issues that are likely to resonate with people struggling against the oppressions that are its focus. It doesn't try to be flashy or sensational, but it succeeds better than Giroux's volume as an accessible, useable tool for people who want to make change.

The book begins with succinct and effective summaries of some of the relevant context. There is a good description of the vicious welfare changes instituted in Ontario and British Columbia in the late '90s and early '00s. I especially appreciated the way the idea of "racialization" (with an emphasis on "gendered racialization") was presented.

The first bit of original research is a look at all articles involving the phrase "welfare fraud" from the Vancouver Sun, Toronto Star, and Globe & Mail newspapers between 1993 and 2006. They found that the old liberal division of the poor into "deserving" and "undeserving" continues to be a central frame in articles on welfare, even if the 19th century language rarely appears explicitly. They also wrote,

Not surprisingly, our findings are consistent with previous studies, which argue that the media reinforce stereotypes about recipients, which includes both sexist and racist beliefs. Although some effort was made to provide counterclaims, the content of the articles are instructive for what they omit. Attempts to contextualize the problem of welfare fraud from the perspective of a welfare recipient were piecemeal at best. Readers are thus left with the impression that the media are in general agreement with the government over the need to rein in the problem of welfare fraud and find tough solutions to the problem. [43]

The "counterclaims" they refer to above includes the presence of plenty of material used by those resisting neoliberal welfare reform, such as evidence showing that the assertion that "welfare fraud" was costing huge amounts of taxpayer money was untrue. However, these facts were presented in such a way -- framed in such a way -- that the implicit consensus between the dominant media and the state in favour of neoliberal reforms was largely undisturbed. Most notably, despite this (muted and undermined) presence of voices of opposition, discussions of racism in the context of "welfare fraud" and the experiences of racialized people on welfare more generally were largely absent from the surveyed articles.

The rest of the research is based on 24 interviews with indigenous and non-indigenous racialized people in Toronto and Vancouver. The results are discussed across several different chapters. The first of these chapters examines some general themes in the experiences of racialized people on welfare: the level of financial support is inadequate, especially in Ontario after the 22% cut by the Tories in the mid-1990s (which subsequent Liberal governments have not restored); many recipients who do not have strong English language skills face additional barriers to applying and to advocating for themselves; many recipients have had negative experiences with case workers; many recipients face structural barriers to employment, often related to the racially and gender segregated labour market in Canada, explicit racism and sexism in the labour market, and to the lack of recognition of credentials obtained in other countries; and many participants noted a heavy impact on people's emotional and psychological wellbeing because of the constant assaults on their dignity by the welfare system.

The next chapter deals with the ways in which the welfare system criminalizes recipients, especially recipients of colour. The amount and kind of information demanded both at initial application and in the regular subsequent reviews means that recipients are subjected to constant surveillance and lose significant privacy when it comes to their financial situations and living arrangements. All of this contributes to a significant loss of dignity for recipients. The book quotes a report by the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition which points out that in order to receive welfare in Ontario from the late '90s to the present, recipients must endure "daily humiliation from government agencies." The continuous demand for excessive documentation communicates to recipients that they are under constant suspicion, and that they must forever be demonstrating their worthiness. The arbitrary, bureaucratic, and often poorly communicated rules which recipients must obey keeps many confused about what their rights are, what is expected of them, and what resources are available to them. The tendency of the bureaucracy and politicians to frame everything not strictly in line with the rules that recipients (and, often, case workers) do not fully understand as "fraud" contributes to constructing recipients broadly as criminal, despite the fact that actual criminal fraud against the welfare system has always been quite rare. In summary, "The intense surveillance and control of welfare recipients also ensures that only a small proportion of those in need will actually receive assistance. For racialized people, the problem is exacerbated by racist comments and treatment within the welfare system" [80].

Specific manifestations of racism in the welfare system were examined. This includes indirectly racist barriers related to language, which constantly crop up in a system based on confusing English-language forms, arbitrary English-language rules, and case workers who often speak only English, especially given the vastly inadequate resources for translation for people living in poverty. It also includes more direct forms of differential treatment related to racial background. All of this ties back to the ways in which,

for many, welfare is cognitively linked to members of a particular social group (e.g., Black or Aboriginal people)... The ease with which racial resentment is mobilized by critics of the welfare system without directly addressing the issue of race highlights the degree to which negative attitudes about welfare are deeply associated with race and racial stereotypes. [86]

The final chapter of the book ties welfare reform, crusades against "welfare fraud," and the particularities of what they call "welfare racism" to the overall shift towards neoliberalism in Canada and gloablly. They argue that

Racism in neo-liberal times manifests itself through the shift from welfare to workfare, in the construction of welfare recipients who face language or labour market barriers as 'cheats' and in the distinction made between the so-called 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor.

The criminalization of poor, racialized people is but one dimension of the way neo-liberal ideology has reshaped our lives. The dismantling of the social state and the erasure of the economic state work in concert with the strengthening of the penal staet to manage poverty in an era of mass joblessness and precarious employment. The intense surveillance of welfare recipients is...part of a broader trend by the state to warehouse, through criminalization and penalization, those who refuse to accept the precarious nature of wage labour. The public campaign against welfare fraud in Ontario is an example of how governments, in an era of neo-liberalism, no longer feel any discomfort in placing blame on targeted groups like immigrants and single mothers for their misfortune. Their poverty is blamed not on structural inequalities of the new marketplace but on their own shortcomings in being unable to overcome the racism and sexism of the marketplace...

People of colour, and in particular women, who are more likely than men to live in poverty and typically have young children to care for, have borne the brunt of these neoliberal policy initiatives. Our book shows that the state fails to help poor people in need of assistance and in fact blames them for their lack of independence and self sufficiency. [89, 92, references in original]

All of this in only 100 pages.

I think there is further experimenting that could be done with volumes like this in terms of the form of the document and the writing, if the goal is popularizing knowledge generated in academic spaces. Still, as it stands this is an important tool -- direct if not exactly easy -- for people on assistance, activists, and others educating themselves about the Canadian welfare state. It is, unfortunately, not easy to find -- if I am remembering correctly from when I was in my last frenzy of book ordering, this one was not only out of print but had to be ordered used from a bookstore in the U.S. But it is knowledge about welfare in Canada in the neoliberal era that you will find few other places.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


thwap said...

Thanks for these reviews dude.

I recall being at a talk about neoliberalism and social welfare and two Ontario social workers were insisting that there was all sorts of fraud.

I suppose that would be unreported income, vehicles and that sort of thing.

Welfare is a pittance though. And unless and until there's a job for everyone who wants one, and unless and until racist and sexist employers stop excluding minorities and women from employment, there needs to be a dignified program of support.

Scott said...

Thanks for your thanks! :)

The social workers who were insisting there was fraud may have meant a number of different things. Despite huge investments of time and money, the governments that instituted anti-"welfare fraud" measures in Canada have only ever been able to lay charges against a very tiny proportion of recipients for fraud, let alone obtain convictions. The amount of money saved by such efforts has been minimal, especially when compared to the expense to the government. Most savings, contrary to some neoliberal rhetoric, has been a result of administrative exclusions and harassment driving people off the system regardless of whether they actually have a job, let alone a living wage job.

However, the ways in which politicians and bureaucrats have inflated the "fraud" numbers is to frame all instances of recipients getting incorrect amounts on their cheques and then having to correct that in later cheques as fraud. Sometimes this is because of unreported income, though this by and large happens in ways that a system with some minimal due process (i.e. the criminal justice system, versus the administrative "justice" of the welfare system) would be unable to actually call fraudulent. The majority, though, are bureaucratic errors, computer glitches, miscalculations, errors by recipients because they don't know the arcane and arbitrary rules, errors by case workers because they don't know the arcane and arbitrary rules either, that kind of thing.

If the two social workers in question were welfare case workers, they might be examples of "institutional capture" -- because the system sets up this oppositional relationship between case workers and recipients by the ways in which work processes are regulated, even the best intentioned case workers often end up treating recipients as "the enemy" in some sense, and jump instantly to suspicion of fraud.