Chapter 20. Mobilizing Research Publications to (Re)Frame Neoliberal Welfare Reform

Shannon Daub

Shannon Daub works as Communications Director with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ BC Office. Her latest work in popularizing research is a documentary film called The Remaining Light (co-created with Goh Iromoto). The film explores how we care for seniors as they age and die, and is based on a decade of CCPA research on community-based health care, much of which was carried out through the Economic Security project. The film can be viewed at www.policyalternatives.ca/bcseniors

Soon after its election in 2001, British Columbia’s new Liberal (read: neo-liberal) government embarked on an ambitious program of tax cuts, deep spending cuts, deregulation, and privatization. Employment standards and labor rights were dramatically rolled back; environmental protection was slashed; one-third of all government regulation was earmarked for elimination; family services and child protection were gutted; and a host of other changes were introduced. A centerpiece of the government’s agenda was a package of welfare reforms that reduced monthly benefit rates; restricted access to welfare; imposed an arbitrary time limit on benefits; and, set out a 30 percent budget cut for the Ministry of Human Resources (then responsible for welfare) (Klein et al., 2008a, pp. 20–21). At the same time, the government cut or eliminated funding for a host of advocacy and support services, such as women’s centres, housing offices, and legal aid (among others) (Reitsma-Street & Wallace, 2004).

The reforms sparked opposition that coalesced initially around the new arbitrary time limit. This rule—unprecedented in Canadian social policy (Klein & Long, 2003)—limited single welfare recipients deemed “employable” by the Ministry to two years of benefits within a five-year period. Characterized as a “ticking time bomb” (Klein, 2003), the time limits meant that in just over 24 months, as many as 29,000 people would be cut off and left with no source of income (Mickleburgh, 2003).

Reitsma-Street and Wallace (2004) chronicle the fight against the two-year limit, noting that a diverse and informal alliance of anti-poverty groups, lawyers, academics, social policy organizations, labor unions, faith groups, professional associations, and others worked at different levels, using “diverse tactics and relevant arguments” in their efforts to abolish the rule (Reitsma-Street & Wallace, 2004, p. 173). Among these groups was the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), a national public-policy research institute, and my employer. Together we succeeded in raising widespread concern, in particular about the likelihood of a sudden spike in homelessness, with some journalists and a number of municipal governments calling on the government to rescind the time limits (Wallace & Richards, 2009). And while we did not succeed in abolishing the rule, the provincial government rendered it virtually meaningless by introducing myriad exemptions before any welfare recipients were impacted. This chapter tells the story of how collaborative research played a central role in challenging the time limits and other reforms, using primary research studies; opinion research regarding public knowledge and attitudes about welfare; plain-language educational materials; mainstream media stories; and, multimedia tools.