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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Dreaming a way out : social planning responses to the agency of lone mothers experiencing neo-liberal welfare reform in western Canada Vilches, Silvia Leonor


Neo-liberal welfare reform, which was implemented in 2002 in BC, Canada, contests the agency of welfare recipients by claiming the right to legitimize motivation. The impact of this on a diverse group of impoverished lone mothers (n = 17) with young children in the city of Vancouver was explored using a critical feminist lens. Grounded theory and narrative analysis were used in a qualitative mixed method study to investigate how women are creating a future for themselves and their children, how they resist and interrogate the imposition of policy directives, and the implications for social planning. The results of in-depth interviews from a three year qualitative longitudinal study show how women mediate between public expectations and private needs by deploying identity to survive. Their actions resist individualizing policy discourses that frame them as people in need. Meanwhile, because of insufficient benefits, they engage in the informal economy to survive, transforming private goods, including sometimes, their bodies, into benefits through barter, sale, and assuming debt. As they scrabble for resources, they create and care for community as a means of surviving, ensuring the future well-being of their children and affirming their identity as valuable members of society. These women manage the risk of failing to support themselves, their children and others, by constituting themselves through dreaming a way out. When their dreaming is at risk of failing, the women risk losing their families. If a key normative goal of social planning is to create an equitable and inclusive society, then these findings challenge the often racialized discourses around poverty and affirm the contribution of impoverished lone parent families, including Aboriginal families, to urban life. A conceptual shift away from the polarized debate created by identifying poverty with a lack of finances and toward the capabilities model used at the international level would enable local planners. Spatial planning tools could help meet the dilemmas impoverished lone parent women face as they use place-based resourcing activities to survive. I argue that without recognizing women’s agency, impoverished lone parent families remain invisible and underserved by existing planning practices.

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