Queen's University

Margaret Little

Revealing the struggles of Canadian women living in poverty

[photo of Margaret Little]

When Margaret Little was a masters student at Queen’s, she was a regular volunteer at Bridge House, a temporary shelter in Kingston for women in crisis. Often the women’s partners were in prison, and the women themselves were receiving some form of social assistance. Many of them spoke to Little, who had once been a journalist and had no problem getting people to open up. She was amazed at how challenging their lives were – and she vowed to learn more about them.

That was more than 25 years ago. Today, Little is a professor of Gender Studies and Political Studies at Queen’s, and one of Canada’s leading activist scholars on single women living in poverty.

Her first book, No Car, No Radio, No Liquor Permit: The Moral Regulation of Single Mothers in Ontario, 1920-1997, chronicles how years of Ontario government policy has worked against low-income single mothers and effectively denied them the same rights and liberties as other Ontarians. In the early days of social assistance, single moms had to prove they were “fit and proper.” They were not allowed to own a car, a radio or a liquor permit. Neighbours would watch them closely and report all a single mother’s activities to the welfare administrators.

[Books on a table]

Although the welfare rules have altered over time, some of the same attitudes towards low income single moms exist today. For more than 30 years, welfare rates have been too low to cover rent, food, utility bills and other necessities of life. "You can’t survive on the welfare rate," explains Little. "If you pay the rent, you can’t feed your kids."

Making matters worse, a welfare-fraud hotline established by the Conservative government of Mike Harris in the 1990s still exists today. "Anyone who has a grudge against a single mom on welfare can call this hotline anonymously and jeopardize a mom’s welfare cheque," says Little. Welfare recipients are always looking over their shoulders for doing things that most Canadians take for granted – as Little found while working at Bridge house.

[Margaret Little photo]

"I'd ask someone to come and have a beer or a coffee with me, but they’d say they couldn’t because someone might see them spending money on drink and report them to the welfare authorities," recalls Little. "I thought, 'oh my gosh, they feel like they’re living in a police state.'"

Since then, through interviews with hundreds of low-income women across Canada, Little has gathered stories and gained insight into federal and provincial social policies that often perpetuate the very problems they’re supposed to solve.

In her spare time, Little works on three projects: white feminist racism; abused women’s experiences of Canadian housing policy; and First Nations women’s experience of violence and Canadian social policy.

Profile by Alec Ross
(e)Affect Issue 1, Spring 2012