Use of Social Programs by Social Class in Canada

Table of Contents


Canada, contrary to popular belief, is a highly stratified country. While the general perception to some citizens and foreigners alike is that it offers equal opportunities for individuals who strive to excel, the reality on the ground tells a different story.

The history of Canada has been tainted by social stratification and limited social mobility, which ensured that regardless of one’s talents, abilities, or ambitions, they stayed in the same social class that they were born into. Thus the poor remain poor, and the rich remain rich.

Even now, social stratification still plays an important role in Canadians’ access to services, and there are different social programs targeted at different social classes in Canada (Macionis & Gerber 2008).

This paper analyzes the different social classes in Canada. It will research and analyze the historical background of social stratification, the current state of affairs, theories, and statistics on the issue, including the different types of social programs available to the different classes today.

Historical Background

The history of Canada before the 1850s had a lot to do with communal and countryside life. However, during this time, the basic essentials of cities in eastern and central Canada had already established themselves though they were still close-knit communities with various functions linked together.

In rural Canada, there were two classes based on land ownership and agricultural production. These were Owners and Tenants. Landowners were more financially secure than tenants and could keep the full reward of their land, but tenants had to pass part of their produce to the landlord in exchange for the occupation of the land (Stelter & Artibise, 1984).

As colonialism advanced, power in the community was concentrated in the hands of military leaders, imperial administrative officials, and a closely-knit merchant class. The social geography of the country was such that the elite was concentrated in the towns while the lower classes spread to the outskirts of the city (Stelter & Artibise, 1984).

By the 1870s, more than a third of the population was in the white-collar class. More than a quarter of the labor force were skilled workers, and over a third were unskilled. The 1870s marked the advent of industrialization and specialization of functions begun, bringing with it segregation by class and ethnicity.

With urban development, there was increased social inequality and a rise in “class consciousness’ as minority groups emerged. Early studies also reveal that this 19th-century urbanization created a rigid social structure that only tolerated a small amount of vertical movement (Stelter & Artibise, 1984).

Social Inequalities in Present Day Canada

From the 19th century to date, some form of social stratification still exists in Canadian society. This is evident in the socioeconomic status of different individuals in different classes and also includes power and occupational prestige. A recent study reveals that the top 20% of families receive 43.6% of the national income, while the bottom 20% receives a mere 5.2% (Macionis & Gerber, 2008). This level of inequality has been maintained for the last 45 years.

Wealth is even more unequally distributed than income and is the preserve of those in power. White-collar workers tend to be viewed more favorably than blue-collar workers.

They receive more income and are more respected. In all categories, women are paid less than men and work mainly in female gender-defined roles such as services and clerical areas, occupations that Macionis and Gerber refer to as pink ghetto jobs. Till recently, women did not participate equally in education as men.

How a Canadian child will turn out and who he/she will be in the future seems to be predetermined by the status into which he/she has been born. Ascription plays an important role in the lives of Canadians. It would appear that our ancestry and gender determines whether we will be born into a life of privilege or poverty. Race and ethnicity are also major determinants of one’s social position.

Overall, the Canadian population can be divided into the upper class which constitutes 3-5% of the population and whose children go to private schools and enjoy immense power in occupational positions: the middle class who form 40-50% of the population; the working class who are about a third of the population and whose jobs give less income and less satisfaction compared to the middle class and lastly the lower class who have no source of sufficient source of income, are labeled as poor and rely on government welfare payments.

Approximately 4.4 million Canadians live below the poverty line, and around 2 million people rely on government welfare in this seemingly wealthy society (Macionis and Gerber 2008). On the whole, there are several social programs in Canada that are used by different social classes depending on their income and needs.

The very first social programs were witnessed in Mackenzie King’s government, which sought to provide pensions in 1927, then unemployment Insurance in 1940and in 1944, the “baby bonus” family allowances were initiated. These set the stage for more comprehensive social reforms in the twentieth through to the 21st century as provided by the Canadian Social Transfer- the Canadian government’s transfer payment program (Coutts, 2003).

Use of Social Programs by Different Social Classes in Canada

Canada has strived to maintain equity in access to services by its largely multicultural population, which mostly consists of immigrants. The Canadian welfare state has implemented a wide range of social services, mostly targeted for disadvantaged groups. These include settlement services, child protection, and social work intervention for people with difficulties living in the community.

Most social programs are provided by the government-funded Canadian Social Transfer and are targeted at the economically disadvantaged groups. They include funding of post-secondary education, social assistance, and social services.

Canada’s retirement income system has been hailed as among the best in the world. It seeks to provide income for all seniors who have previously been employed and has been successful in reducing the number of seniors living below the poverty line from 21.3% in the 1980s to 6.8% in 2003.

It includes the guaranteed income supplement (GIS) and the Canada Pension Plan (CPP). The GIS is largely targeted to give maximum benefits to low-income seniors. This plan targets the low to middle-income social class but also benefits the upper class (Canadian Council on Social Development, 2005).

The Canada Child Tax Benefit is also aimed at reducing child poverty. The program allocated almost $10 billion per year to low and middle-income families and.

The program has been largely successful in that it has reduced the percentage of children significantly in low-income families from 18.6% in 1996 to 12.4% in 2003 (Canadian Council on Social Development, 2005). The child tax credit, which is essential to offer a tax reduction for parents, is a benefit for lower-income families as it decreases with an increase in family income.

The Canadian government also recognizes the importance of good family policies in reducing poverty and improving the standard of living for its citizens. Quebec has a comprehensive low-cost, high-quality daycare system that has been operational since 1998, and it has really helped the middle to lower classes to be able to work more effectively.

Recognizing the importance of this, the national government has also proposed a National daycare plan at the cost of $ 5 billion annually, but given that Quebec alone spends approximately 1.4 billion annually in its program, the funding has been widely perceived as grossly insufficient (Canadian Council on Social Development, 2005).

In matters of education, it is the responsibility of the government to provide elementary, secondary, and post-secondary education. This benefits the child from the lower class and middle-income class. Children from the upper class typically attend private schools. Kindergarten funding varies from region to region, but as from grade one, the government will universally fund education up to grade twelve. Publicly funded high school education and post-secondary education are also offered. As a result, compared to other schools in the past, Canada has one of the highest enrolled tertiary educations.

Canada also provides unemployment benefits for those who do not work but subject to them working on specific government assigned jobs. This is referred to as workfare and is a more work-based system of providing welfare.

Providing adequate housing to the homeless is also a prerogative of both the federal and territorial governments. The Canadian cities, over time, have created such housing units with support from the federal government. The private sector has also played a role in providing housing for low-income Canadians.

This was done with the support of public programs, mortgage subsidies, tax breaks, and providing houses with lower rents for a given number of years (Westhues). Another policy option has been to provide shelter allowance to individuals so that they can afford private shelters.

The shelter allowance programs give the tenant the freedom to choose where he would want to live, but the downside has been in the escalation of rents as more people compete for the same housing units. Canada has no comprehensive policy for homelessness, and this has worsened the problem. (Westhues, 2006).

There are two schools of thought in regard to the issue of homelessness. One theory views the homeless as deserving of their plight while the other holds a more sympathetic view and advocates for the provision of better housing as welfare-enhancing public policy (Westhues, 2006).

The federal government of Canada has also endeavored to provide quality and affordable healthcare, especially for its multicultural population, which forms the bulk of the low-income group. A publicly funded health care system ensures that everyone has access to medical care… In Canada, it is referred to as Medicare.

The Canadian Health Act prohibits user fees, so one does not need to pay. Under this act, the government seeks to address groups with specific needs adequately and equally so as to ensure that there is no bias in the provision of health services.

Analysis and Recommendations

The Canadian government has certainly made tremendous steps towards the improvement in the standard of living for their entire population. It is imperative that the government seeks to provide social services to its citizens, especially in a socially stratified population such as Canada. The probability of moving from one socioeconomic status to another is largely influenced by government policy, and the federal government of Canada recognizes this.

However, the government should be wary of giving handouts as this might encourage some citizens not to work, more so if what they are earning from employment is equivalent to their unemployment benefits. The workfare policy is a good measure in encouraging the unemployed to work.

The provision of social programs that are usually targeted at the middle to low-income groups has helped the economically disadvantaged Canadian population to live a relatively well off life compared to the life they could have led without social services.

While the gains are certainly heralded, the major focus of the Canadian government should be in terms of job creation and encouraging independence so that they reduce the number of people relying on welfare and in turn, increase the allocation of funds to other crucial sectors of the economy.

There is a need to understand the level of inequality in Canada and the implication of providing social welfare both to the citizenry and the government adequately.


The importance of social programs in promoting the well being of Canadians cannot be overlooked. The Canadian government has, through the years, struggled to provide social services for its disadvantaged citizens. We have seen major gains in the provision of health services and education, which try to ensure that all citizens have access to quality education and welfare.

However, in the same breath, the government should run policies that encourage job creation to reduce the number of dependants on the national income. The aim should also be to narrow the income gap so that all citizens have a fair play when it comes to accessing services.

At the end of the day, the Canada that Canadian people want is not one that dishes handouts but one that ensures that the needs of all its citizens are met without bias or favor and that everyone, from birth, has an equal chance in owning part of the national wealth.


  1. John J. Macionis and Linda M. Gerber, sociology fifth Canadian edition, Pearson Education Inc 1995-2008.
  2. Gilbert Stelter and Alan F.J Artibise, The Canadian Cities: Essays in Urban and Social history, Mc Gill Queen’s Press, 2006.
  3. Anne Westhues, Canadian Social Policy: Issues and Perspectives, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2006.
  4. Canadian Council on social Development, Perception vol 27, Nos. 3 and 4 Special edition: Renovating Canada’s Social Programs.
  5. Jim Coutts, Windows of opportunity: Social Reform under Lester B. Pearson, Policy Options, November 2003.
  6. An agreement between the government of Canada and the Governments of the Provinces and the Territory, A framework to improve the Social Union for Canada. February 4th 1999.
  7. Annual report on the Canada Assistance Plan. Year ended March 31st 1968.
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