Intersectionality and the Policing of “welfare fraud” in Ontario and British Columbia

The term intersectionality, which was first coined by legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, underscores the ‘multidimensionality’ of marginalized subjects’ lived experiences (Nash, 2008). Intersectionality emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s from critical race studies, a scholarly movement born in the legal academy committed to problematizing law’s purported colour-blindness, neutrality, and objectivity. From the beginning, intersectionality has had a long-standing interest in one particular intersection: the intersection of race and gender. Intersectionality rejects the ‘single-axis framework’ often embraced by both feminist and anti-racist scholars, instead analysing the various ways in which race and gender interact to shape the multiple dimension of racialized women’s experiences (Nash, 2008).

The racialized effects, especially on women, of government policies on the policing of “welfare fraud” in Ontario and British Columbia are a good example how racism and gender bias intersects. People of color are most often the casualties in the governments’ desire to roll back the welfare state. Data shows that while visible minorities are twice as likely to live under the poverty line at 36 percent, the plight of immigrants is even worse due to barriers faced by the immigrants in the labour force (Mirchandani & Chan, 2007, p. 12). The over-representation of ethnic groups in poor neighbourhoods in many of Canada’s urban centres has resulted in the racialization of poverty, wherein racial enclaves and racial underclass are emerging, which leads to a host of social problems, such as higher health risks, barrier to social services and increased contact with the criminal justice system (Mirchandani & Chan, 2007, p. 12).

Many women historically and at present need social assistance because they are channelled into part-time and temporary employment, yet are often ineligible for benefits (Mirchandani & Chan, 2007, p. 13). Instead of granting the needy with the welfare benefits, the authorities see them as criminals and spend more money in policing based on the belief that the unemployed need to be under constant surveillance in order to keep crime and disorder to a minimum; even though, studies show that welfare reduces the financial pressure to break the law (Mirchandani & Chan, 2007, pp. 13, 25). “Anti-fraud” policies aimed at controlling access to welfare in both Ontario and British Columbia has been justified as saving tax-payers money even though studies show that the problem of welfare fraud is insignificant, averaging around 3 percent per year (Mirchandani & Chan, 2007, p. 13). Women are significantly overrepresented in the prosecution of welfare fraud due to unfair reasoning that ranges from not being able to produce unattainable forms of documentation, such as several years of bank records, to not being able to produce evidence that they are not living in a spousal relationship (Mirchandani & Chan, 2007, pp. 52-54, 70). The so-called “man in the house” rules have a lengthy history in Ontario, and certainly historically women’s entitlement to benefits was strongly tied to judgement about their moral character and, in particular, their sexual chastity; for example, before 1987 a single recipient risked having her benefits terminated if a conclusion was made that she was not living as a single person, but rather living together with a man as husband and wife (the regime impacted almost exclusively upon women) (Mosher, 2006, pp. 214-215).

Works Cited

Mirchandani, K., & Chan, W. (2007). Criminalizing Race, Criminalizing Poverty: Welfare Fraud Enforcement in Canada. Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.

Mirchandani, K., & Chan, W. (2007). Criminalizing Race, Criminalizing Poverty: Welfare Fraud Enforcement in Canada. Winnipeg: Furnwood Publishing.

Mosher, J. E. (2006). The Construction of “Welfare Fraud” and the Wielding of the State’s Iron Fist. In E. Comack, Locating Law: Race/Class/Gender Connections [2nd Edition] (pp. 207-233). Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.

Nash, J. C. (2008). Re-Thinking Intersectionality. Feminist Review, No. 89, 1-15.

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One response to “Intersectionality and the Policing of “welfare fraud” in Ontario and British Columbia

  1. Good post. Question: How should an awareness of intersectionality impact efforts to achieve law reform? In other words, how does this concept factor into grassroots organizing and efforts to demystify existing legal regimes?