Monday, September 28, 2009

Review: 'No Car, No Radio, No Liquor Permit'

[Margaret Jane Hillyard Little. 'No car, No Radio, No Liquor Permit': The Moral Regulation of Single Mothers in Ontario, 1920-1997. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998.]

Moral regulation is one of those concepts that entered my consciousness sideways. I couldn't tell you where I first encountered it. I think it had at least partially seeped into my commonsense before I could've given you a halfway decent formal definition of it, and it is quite possible that I still think about related phenomena in ways that differ from those academics who make it the focus of their work. For me, it has been particularly important as a tool to talk about one important way in which struggles around sexuality and relationship practice intersect with a wide range of other struggles, but it certainly has broader applicability.

In the case of 'No Car, No Radio, No Liquor Permit', the focus is on moral regulation, including but not limited to sexuality, as part of the functioning of class oppression and the reproduction of patriarchal social relations. I went into reading this book with high expectations, and I was not disappointed. Little traces the 77 year history of Mother's Allowance in Ontario through exploring how it has actually shaped the lives of poor women, by looking at surviving case files for the earlier years and through extensive interviews with women who were on the system (as well as a few non-recipient advocates) for the most recent period.

Mother's Allowance originated in large part in organizing by middle- and upper-class women around their perception of the needs of poor women, though without any participation or consultation with the latter. This program broke new ground in important ways in that it represented the first regular, large-scale cash payment from the Ontario state to individuals, and it played an important part in the transition from the private welfare of the 19th century, oriented around charity and around very explicit and harsh determinations of the "worthy" and "unworthy" among potential recipients, to the supposedly rights-based public welfare systems that arose in the 20th century. However, it also served as a way for privileged women to become active agents and authorities in the public sphere -- a new development in that era -- in ways based on differentiating themselves from and otherizing poor and minority women. The amount of Mother's Allowance was never, at any point in its existence, adequate for a single mother and her children to live on, and most of those who lobbied for its creation never intended it to be. And though the form of moral regulation embodied in Mother's Allowance shifted over time, it never, contrary to the mythology, ceased to be a central component of the program's functioning.

In the initial years of the program, Mother's Allowance was conceived quite explicitly as the state paying certain women, who were without the support of a male breadwinner, for their labour in raising their children. Women needed to apply, and they were exhaustively investigated based on both financial and moral criteria. The primary beneficiaries initially were widows and women who had been abandoned by their husbands. Women who got pregnant outside of marriage were not eligible, and in fact were widely assumed to belong to the category "feeble-minded" in those years, and therefore unsuited to raise children. Among those who qualified, widows were scrutinized less stringently than women who had been abandoned, who seemed to have been under suspicion that perhaps they were to blame for their husband's departure. One expression of this much lower level of sympathy for abandoned women was that initially they were not eligible for support until seven years after their husband left them, and only if they and none of the friends, neighbours, and acquaintences contacted by investigators had any idea where the husband might be now. Women were expected to work part-time while caring for their children and receiving the allowance, but they were largely expected to do "women's work" -- they were not encouraged to work full-time or to engage in work that might facilitate their advancement and prosperity later in life, thus ensuring their continued poverty and/or dependence on a male breadwinner and helping to reproduce our gender segregated labour market. For many years, mothers with one child were not eligible, which seemed to mostly be about saving the Ontario treasury money.

Changes in Mother's Allowance were ongoing from its creation in 1920 until the Conservative provincial government of Premier Mike Harris abolished it in 1997. Some of these were changes in how the program was administered. Initially there were local volunteer boards supervised by a provincial board, which later shifted to an active role for municipal administrations, and later still to a purely civil service-based provincial approach to running things. Some had to do with eligibility, with a general trend towards increasing the proportion of single women with dependents who qualified and a gradual easing of the differential treatment for different categories of women. In the period of the growth of the welfare state after World War II, the rates did finally increase significantly, but the amount was never even close to enough to live on. The attitude of the program officials towards paid work also shifted -- there was an interval in the middle in which any paid work by the woman in question was frowned upon, but by the end of the program women were being encourage to work as much as possible, as soon as possible, with minimal consideration of the challenges involved in doing so while trying to raise children.

As I said, moral regulation was a persistent feature of Mother's Allowance in Ontario for its entire duration. This is in contrast with the liberal and social democratic illusion that the public, professionalized welfare state dispensed with the demeaning and intrusive character of 19th century charity-based welfare. This illusion is possible because the nature, location, and textual basis of moral regulation changed over time. Initially it was quite explicit in the legislation that to receive the allowance a woman had to be a "fit and proper person." This lead to the blanket exclusion of unwed mothers and to regular reporting on everything from how deferential recipients were to school and welfare officials to how clean their homes were to whether there was any hint of romantic relationships with men. (One of the most ridiculous contradictions in this era was that women were actively encouraged to get off the Mother's Allowance rolls by marrying, yet any hint of involvement with a man put their allowance at risk, so it was not clear how they were supposed to find someone to marry.)

In the years immediately before the program was discontinued in 1997, moral regulation worked very differently. Any explicit moral requirements to qualify for the allowance had long been expunged from its governing documents. Yet, somehow, there remained such requirements in practice, usually not with the broad focus of the early years but with more exclusive attention to women's sexuality. Often these forms of regulation were given financial justification but had clear moral elements.

For instance,

In keeping with the male-breadwinner ideology, the state is reluctant to financially support single mothers when fathers could do so. Consequently, there are a number of administrative procedures to track down or identify the male breadwinner, which involve intrusive investigation into a mother's intimate life. Single mothers often refer to these investigative procedures as 'manhunts'. These intrusive questionnaires and the time-consuming investigations conducted by state workers to identify and locate a male breadwinner are not cost efficient, especially given the low incidence of fraud. This suggests that there is more at stake than merely balancing the government's books. [173]

Similarly, moral scrutiny has often been at the heart of the informal, volunteer monitoring of women on social assistance by neighbours, landlords, teachers, fellow church members, and others. As well, women cohabiting with a man regardless of the character of their relationship or of his relaitonship to her children, were ineligible for the allowance except for a brief period in the late '80s and early '90s in which, under some circumstances, cohabitation was allowed for up to three years without automatic assumptions the he should be supporting her. Even that window, though, was not so much a space of liberation as a mandate for workers to be extremely intrusive in establishing exactly what kind of relationship the recipient had with the man in question. (Little reports that almost all of the women she interviewed talked about workers doing offensive things in investigating their relationships with men -- from inspecting their bathrooms for masculinity-associated grooming products to forcing one woman to try on her unisex winter boots to make sure they were really hers.) Women of colour, of course, were targeted even more harshly than white single mothers. And it should be noted that Little conducted her interviews before the attack on welfare recipients reached fever pitch in the mid- to late-'90s -- it is likely that the imperative to shrink the rolls at any cost made the moral scrutiny of women on assistance that much nastier.

I guess I have just two more points.

The first is how angry this all makes me. I am super touchy about things that I perceive as attempts to morally regulate me even when the actual coercive power behind them is minimal. I can hardly conceive of how awful it must be to face it under the threat of, "If you and your kids want to eat, you must...." Ghastly. I can only vaguely imagine what it was like for my partner's widowed great-grandmother raising her two sons on Mother's Allowance in the 1930s, or for one of my sisters during her time on general social assistance as a single mom in the years after Mother's Allowance was dismantled.

The other is to relate Little's conclusion that the renewed attack on poor people by the Ontario state reached its most intense levels under the Harris Tories (and continues largely unabated under Dalton McGuinty's Liberals) but its logics were initiated in important ways by Bob Rae's social democratic NDP government of the early '90s.

What these two things say to me is that however we balance pragmatic goals with radical vision, whatever we understand to be the potential for positive change based in the state form, the answers "vote for social democrats" and "restore the welfare to how it used to be" are simply not sufficient. To argue for those things without also having some kind of critical vision of how to move beyond their limitations is to accept a world in which the price of bread for some, particularly single women with children, is humiliation, subordination, and moral regulation.

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