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"I’m not sitting on the couch eating bonbons!" : women’s transitions from welfare to paid work and education Andruske, Cynthia Lee


Starting from the everyday as problematic, this research explores how women navigated structures in their everyday lives as they attempted to make transitions from welfare to paid work and education. Through welfare and training policy documents, policymakers define, identify, and shape women's needs. However, what policymakers perceive as needs are often different than women's actual lived needs. To meet their needs and make transitions, women on welfare acted as oppositional agents to navigate structures they encountered by using their support networks and by engaging in self-directed or informal learning projects. By operating as creative social act-ors, these women are political agents — citizen activists seeking a better life for themselves and their communities — not dependents o f the system. Using the life history methodology to understand women's transitional processes from welfare, this study focuses on 23 participants for the period 1998 to 2001 in the communities of Chiilliwack and Abbotsford in British Columbia, Canada. Analysis of the women's starting point, mid-point, and "end-point" interviews yielded a number of discoveries. First of all, despite what government wants and policy documents state, just getting a job is not the answer. When a number of women went directly from welfare to paid work, a few were fired for "no reason"; others were "pushed out"; and some encountered resistance in the nontraditional areas of "doing a man's job." Despite attempting to fit into the workplace by learning the "rules of the game" and having the necessary cultural, social, and symbolic capital to establish relationships, these women did not appear to fit based on class, gender, education, and other qualities. However, other women seemed to be exceptions, and they were able to retain their jobs as they had mentors lend them support in their paid work after welfare. Secondly, women enrolling in college or university directly from welfare seemed to have a smoother transition from welfare to work as they benefited from mentoring and a better understanding of the rules of the game. Furthermore, when they graduated with diplomas or degrees, they appeared to have more success in retaining their jobs based on their experiences through education. All the women in the study had an educational thread running throughout their transitions. They attended pre-employment programs, workshops and seminars, or college and continuing education courses. Finally, initially, some women appeared to stay on welfare. However, upon closer examination, these women chose to do so until they could move from welfare to Disability to acquire more resources to meet their health needs. Once their health issues were controlled, they began planning to leave welfare for education or moving to other choices. All the women strategized how to make transitions to navigate structures to meet their needs. Before leaving welfare, women consciously decided to do so. To make changes, women felt they needed to take time for themselves to reflect, plan, and ensure their survival, health, and children's needs were taken into account. At the same time, the women would construct support networks comprised o f friends, family, welfare workers, trainers, politicians, and others to help them gain entry to social spaces and acquire resources. Furthermore, the women engaged in self-directed or informal learning projects, such as gathering information, attending programs, doing research, and learning more about themselves, their rights, opportunities, and entitlements. By using support networks and self-directed learning projects, the women made choices, albeit constrained or bound by structures they encountered, to make opportunities and live their unlived potentialities. This often occurred in opposition to government's underlying assumption that a citizen is a paid, taxpaying worker outside the home, not a mother performing unpaid caring work in the household. Through their decision-making, the women operated as creative and strategic agents to take control of their lives. Furthermore, as social act-ors, the 23 women shared these "lessons around the kitchen table," their knowledge and learning projects, and enacted alternate living social policy in their communities. Thus, they pushed the definition of citizenship to include women on welfare as creators of culture and writers of social policy through their actions.

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