Criminalizing Race, Criminalizing Poverty

Criminalizing Race, Criminalizing Poverty
Welfare Fraud Enforcement in Canada

By Wendy Chan and Kiran Mirchandani  

Mirchandani and Chan begin Criminalizing Race, Criminalizing Poverty: Welfare Fraud Enforcement in Canada with an introduction replete with ambitious goals for heir book. Identifying seven inter-related but distinct areas to be covered they seem to bite off more than they can chew in a publication of less than 100 pages. To cover (i) the welfare fraud enforcement practices and strategies adopted by Ontario and British Columbia, (ii) the criminalization of poverty, (iii) the criminalization of race, (iv) the ways in which welfare fraud enforcement serves to “further neo-liberal governance structures,” (v) the voices of welfare recipients of colour, and furthermore (vi) to increase awareness about the structural racism within social assistance policies and (vii) to make policy reform recommendations, is no small task. To do so effectively requires a solid framework within which to develop the respective areas and into which to weave the various discourses. Mirchandani and Chan present such a framework through their discussion of how issues of gender, class, and race intersect to construct relations of power and institutional processes which stigmatize and marginalize certain groups of people. In exploring how these constructions “mediate society’s understanding and application of social policies,” (9) they introduce a framework with the potential to integrate the various goals and objectives of the book. However, the framework they present is not sufficiently developed to successfully weave together the composite parts. Because of this, the strength of their argument is compromised in its component parts as a whole. While some sections stand on their own, presenting a poignant and convincing case, others flounder without a structure to hang on to. In examining the welfare fraud enforcement practices and strategies adopted by the provincial governments of Ontario and British Columbia, Mirchandani and Cha outline the relevant policies and begin to build a convincing case illustrating how these policies criminalize people on welfare. From snitch-lines (where neighbors and friends are expected to report on suspected welfare fraud) to greater streamlining of various provinces’ welfare systems (to ensure recipients are not collecting benefits in more than on jurisdiction) to increased surveillance (including hiring of addition staff to review case filers), fraud enforcement initiatives contribute to the construction of welfare recipients as dishonest people and ‘cheats’. Opposing the interests of taxpayers to those of welfare recipients, welfare fraud enforcement initiates are legitimized. In an attempt “to reassure the public that their tax dollars are being well spent” (13) welfare fraud enforcement has been developed to mirror the criminal justice system to such an extent that the Harris government in Ontario proposed a place that would mandate all welfare recipients to be fingerprinted in an effort to reduce fraud. In looking at numbers, Mirchandani and Chan present a clear case that welfare fraud accusations are largely unfounded and that the fraud rates estimates of money save through fraud enforcement are grossly overstated. Furthermore, a number of fraud accusations result from system errors and are not, in fact, fraud at all. What these overstatements do achieve, however, is a criminalization of poverty. With the incidence of fraud ranging from less that 0.5 per cent to 4 per cent, depending upon the jurisdiction and source, the media and parliamentary attention to the issues implies that the rates are significantly higher. It draws on existing stereotypes and legitimized a ‘crack-down’ on the poor and marginalized. Mirchandani and Chan’s overview of policies, numbers, and discussion of representation of welfare fraud in the media powerfully illustrates the ways in which the poor are criminalize in Ontario and British Columbia. Interwoven with their arguments demonstrating the criminalization of poverty through welfare fraud enforcement discourses and initiatives, is an analysis of this criminalization of race through the same processes. A key to understanding this analysis of race is the concept of ‘racialization.’ Racialization highlights “the systemic and continuous ways in which racism is produced” (46) and thereby “shifts the focus from the notion of face as fixed biological trait to an analysis of practices of dominant social groups.”(47) Using this concept of racialization enables a discussion of how governmental institution are constructed from the dominant paradigm, reflecting the beliefs and values of the dominant culture and inherently privileging the dominant class, race, and sex and systemically disadvantaging others. While Mirchandani and Chan do an excellent job of explicating the concept of racialization, their analysis of the process is less thorough. While the draw attention to race issues, they do no successfully weave together the processes of racialization and poverty and, as a result, their discussion on race often comes across a tag-on to the discussion of criminalization of poverty. Another key piece of Mirchandani and Chas is the ideological motivation behind the criminalization of race and poverty. Referring to neo-liberalism throughout the book, however, what they mean by the term is not clearly defined. They comment on how through the process of stigmatizing (82) and constructing “deeply negative stereotypes of welfare recipients,” (81) a dismantling of the welfare state has been legitimized. They refer to the “centrality place on individual labour market participate” (87) in welfare reform. But, without defining what they mean by neo-liberalism, and how these concepts relate, the references remain oblique. As with their discussion of race, the references to neo-liberalism move between being weaved in to the framework of the book and coming across as being appended. One of the book’s strength, however, is in the ways in which the voices of welfare recipients support and complement the theoretical and analytical work. The accounts of experiences told my participants tell a story of discrimination and criminalization that needs to be heard. Combined with the strength of the discussion on the criminalization of poverty that runs through the book, the experiences of welfare recipients add an important layer to the discussion. For anyone interested in income-support programs in Canada, this book document some important experiences and trends as well as providing a number of provocative ideas to explore. However, while drawing attention to significant and important questions, the book falls short of the goals set out in the introduction. The book would be useful to a wider audience if some of the connections between the criminalization of poverty, the criminalization of race, and the influence of neo-liberalism were more explicit, particularly as they inform government policy and institutions. Hannah Goa University of Alberta Labour/Le Travail, Volume 63 (Spring 2009)

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