New risks for the social welfare state

New risks for the social welfare state McGill University

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McGill Reporter
November 11, 2004 - Volume 37 Number 05
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 37: 2004-2005 > November 11, 2004 > New risks for the social welfare state

New risks for the social welfare state

Canada's face is changing. More and more members of our population are immigrants or first-generation Canadians. The birth-rate is falling. More households have two income earners, and more of those income earners are likely to change careers several times in their lifetime. More of us live in cities — especially the poor.

Illustration of people and maple leaves.

None of this was foreseen in 1943, when the Report on Social Security for Canada was released. The report — written largely by McGill social scientist Leonard Marsh — became the intellectual underpinning for what developed into the Canadian welfare state.

The McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC) is hosting a conference that will examine the challenges facing Canada's modern social welfare system. Co-sponsored by Social Development Canada, the conference is titled "New Century, New Risks."

The timing is apt, explained MISC director Antonia Maioni.

"All levels of government are rethinking their responsibilities in terms of social policy. This conference comes out of an exploration of the links Canadians have with their governments and how social policy is an important part of what governments do for their citizens, and also the way in which citizens engage with their governments."

Marsh's report of 1943 established many of the current foundations of social security: old-age pensions, employment insurance, child benefits and income supplements.

"The welfare state in Canada developed as a response to how economic upheaval, modernization and industrialization were changing society and producing new risks for society," said Maioni.

In those days, full employment was the goal. The country was overwhelmingly white, and the family unit consisted of a stay-at-home mom, a dad and a few kids. All of that has changed, and the social welfare state has had to change along with it.

"Today it's about how we can make sure workers have the skills that are needed for future demand. How do we integrate young people into the workforce?" said Maioni. Policy makers have to decide if it is jobs that are important, or being able to earn a living wage. How can the state encourage a work/family balance, when both parents (if there are indeed two) are working?

"There's also added stresses that have to do with caring for not only the very young, but also the very old. People are living longer, and needing more care, and that usually falls on families' resources," said Maioni.

The "safety-net" needs patching as well. Canada is rife with pockets of persistent poverty -- such as urban poor and aboriginal communities that remain excluded from Canada's prosperity for generations.

The night before the main conference starts, Tom Kent will deliver MISC's James R. Mallory Lecture. His talk, titled "Socio-Economic Policy in Federal Canada:  A Contemporary Focus," will address how Canada needs to manage its social development programs in a globalizing world. Kent was a senior policy advisor to former prime minister Lester Pearson when many of the current social welfare programs were put into place.

"I would argue that one of the big changes with globalization is that the things that can be done nationally about economic affairs involve social policy just as much as the conventional instruments of economic policy," said Kent, explaining that health and educational policy have just as great an effect on a nation's economic health as the exchange value of the dollar. Education is a key part of this approach, and early education especially.

"Canada does lag, very badly behind European countries [in early childhood education.] This is the result of federalism, in the sense that the responsibility is provincial, but the capacity of the provinces to discharge that responsibility is enormously varied because of the different fiscal capacities of the provinces," said Kent.

"Therefore, an effective federal role that makes provincial programs possible across the country but without taking over the running of them is the essential trick of how federalism needs to operate."

The conference itself will look at what the new social risks are in the new century, the governance structures that are dealing with them — which might include non-governmental actors — and what the best solutions are to minimize them. Each of the plenary meetings and breakout sessions will have input from Canadian, American and European perspectives. It is hoped that with participation from government (Minister of Social Development Canada Ken Dryden will attend), academics and stakeholder groups, the conference can serve as a touchstone for rethinking social development policy in Canada.

"This is a tremendous opportunity to take stock of some of the most recent research that is emerging on social policy in Canada, and to engage speakers from different communities. We need to have a discussion about where we are — to situate social development in Canada in historical terms, but also in terms of more recent challenges, and to try to move forward from that," said Maioni.

"New Century, New Risks: Challenges for Social Development in Canada," November 18 to 19, Omni Mont-Royal Hotel. Please see for more information on the program and how to register.

Tom Kent, "Socio-Economic Policy in Federal Canada:  A Contemporary Focus," Wednesday, November 17, at 5 pm at the McGill Faculty Club. Call 398-2605 for more information.

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