TRANSITIONS AT FIFTEEN: HAS EMPLOYABILITY LED TO SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT?
The Ontario Social Assistance Review Committee’s Transitions report, released in 1988, garnered the rare approval of a broad body of left and right wing opinion (Tuohy 1992). Fifteen years later, the social assistance landscape has been largely transformed, and in a manner largely antithetical to progressive ambitions.
This paper argues that accepting the employability premise of Transitions was in retrospect a strategic dead end on two counts. First, politically, it helped open the door to workfare-inspired policies, with even the post-1995 Conservative government laying claim to the Transitions legacy. Second, to the extent that public evaluations exist, there is little evidence that employability programmes have delivered on their promise of moving social assistance recipients into paid work, beyond brief participation at the margins of the labour market. This holds even for expensive programmes that reflected a human resources development model (cf. Peck 1998), such as NB Works (whose final evaluations are only now becoming public). In other words, the employability focus placed great emphasis on socially excluded individuals at the margins of the labour force, which aided a process of scapegoating recipients (cf. Bashevkin 2002) but which has not turned out to be an appropriate locus for combating poverty and unemployment. The paper concludes with a brief discussion of themes and issues that might underpin a renewed social democratic approach to social assistance, both by recovering elements of Transitions that were subsequently ignored, and by placing greater emphasis on labour market institutions affecting the core workforce, as opposed to those seeking to manage those on its margins (cf. Morel 2001; Bashevkin 2002).
Peter Graefe is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Political Science at McMaster University. He has published on social economy and economic development policies in Quebec in Policy and Politics, Critical Social Policy, and Studies in Political Economy. Part of his doctoral research looked at social assistance reform in Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan.
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