Spouse-in-the-House

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Jennifer Smith was a thirty-year-old single mother struggling to raise four children in Toronto after having been deserted by her husband. She was taking courses to complete her high school degree and had been on welfare since 1966. In October 1970, she received an unexpected letter, informing her that her welfare payments were being cut off because she was no longer living as a single person. The decision to withdraw her support was based on a surprise inspection a week earlier, which Smith described as follows:

“On October 11 at 10:00 am a (welfare official) came to my door, showed me a card indicating that he was from the Department of Social and Family Services, and advised me that this was a routine investigation. He said that he wanted to see the apartment and then began to look around. Upon opening a closet in the living room, he discovered some beer bottles and said ‘I don’t give a shit what you do with your cheque; what I want to know is whether you’re good for those kids.’ Then he asked me for a picture of my husband and as I was searching for one in my purse, he went into the bedroom without asking my permission. He opened the closet in the bedroom and found therein my boyfriend … who had hidden there when he had heard the knock on the front door. He had hidden there in order to avoid trouble between the welfare authorities and myself. He (welfare official) said that he no longer needed a picture of my husband because he had discovered my husband in the bedroom. I advised the (welfare official) that said man in the cupboard was not my husband. The (welfare official) asked my boyfriend a number of questions relating to our relationship. The (welfare official) said that my ‘sex life’ was my own business and that it had nothing to do with my receiving welfare cheques. Thereupon he left my premises. On October 15, when I telephoned the welfare office to enquire whether I could attend there to collect my cheque my (regular) welfare worker … advised me that (the welfare official who had visited me) had informed them that because he had found a man in my apartment, I could not collect my cheque until that man attended at the office of the Special Investigation Unit and answered some questions.” [Clément 2008]

Denied any right to challenge the decision and having to wait until a Board of Review was called, Smith was typical of single mothers who were victims of a welfare system that was eager to cut costs. Single women who were suspected of having a man in the house were routinely denied access to welfare. The “spouse-in-the-house” rule clearly discriminated against women – it assumed that a sexual relationship entailed a financial one – and the policy did not apply to men. Welfare officials also employed questionable practices during their inspections. They demanded to know about the most intimate aspects of a recipient’s relationships and sometimes reached conclusions on the basis of such flimsy evidence as the presence of open beer cans or a raised toilet seat. A Deserted Wives Unit was created in 1961 to track down and sue husbands to reclaim benefits, but the welfare department directed most of its energy toward monitoring female welfare recipients rather than their deadbeat husbands. For this reason, women on welfare – not the men – bore the brunt of public resentment.

Jennifer Smith took her case to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which embraced the issue on behalf of all single mothers on welfare. Within a decade, rights activists and feminists had successfully framed the man-in-the-house policy as a women’s rights issue, and it was finally eliminated after many years of effort. In 1986, women’s rights activists convinced the Ontario government to dispense with the policy. Later attempts by the Nova Scotia and Ontario governments to reintroduce it were rebuffed by the courts. These significant victories emerged from the understanding that gender and poverty intersected. The legal cases involving the man-in-the-house policy represented “important litigation successes recognizing the intersectionality of poverty and sex discrimination in a manner that was emphasized by women’s groups in 1985 … The exclusion of public housing tenants from security of tenure provisions constitutes discrimination because of race, sex and poverty.” [Porter 2005]


Further Reading

Falkiner v. Ontario, [2002] 212 D.L.R. (4th) 633.

“Ontario Ends Man-in-the-Home Rule for Welfare.” Toronto Globe and Mail, 19 September 1986.

Porter, Bruce. “Twenty Years of Equality Rights: Reclaiming Expectations.” Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice 23, 1 (2005): 145-92.