A Qualitative Study of the Mandatory Transition to Benefits Card Technology for Welfare Recipients in Toronto, Canada

  • Author / Creator
    Barkway, Kelsi J.
  • In Canada, and in many other countries, consumers are increasingly reliant on online payment systems, such as credit and debit cards (Osler, 2018). As these payment technologies become the financial norm, governments and corporations are grappling with how to include people who do not have bank accounts and continue to rely on cash. Several countries have adopted card payment systems to distribute government benefits to recipients; these systems have included a variety of restrictions on how these cards can be used. In 2012, Toronto became the first city in Canada to require social assistance recipients without bank accounts to access their funds via the City’s newly implemented benefits cards. Using this moment of mandated transition that changed how recipients thought about and engaged with money and payment technologies, this dissertation shows that the implementation of card technology is not simply a new form of economic exchange; rather, it is an intervention with social implications. This study is based on qualitative interviews conducted with 47 recipients who used the benefits cards to access their social assistance payments. As part of this study, I also analyzed publicly available City Council documents outlining the adoption and implementation of this technology and interviewed two municipal government employees. I use literature on neoliberalism and governmentality to contextualize the City of Toronto’s justifications for adopting this technology within the social assistance system, and the involvement of RBC in the distribution of social assistance funds. Drawing on the work of Zelizer (1994; 2011; 2012) and other economic sociologists (e.g. Bandelj et al., 2017; Dodd, 1994; 2014; Gilbert, 2005; Guseva and Rona-Tas, 2017), I frame recipients’ responses to the benefits cards as both reactions and forms of resistance to this new social intervention that reflect their economic marginalization and context within the social assistance system. Findings demonstrate the introduction of card technology disrupted respondents’ lives in three key areas. First, the introduction of virtual money disrupted how respondents thought about, accessed, and saved money. Second, the benefits cards disrupted respondents’ relationships and sense of identity. Third, the benefits cards disrupted respondents’ perceptions of surveillance and monitoring. Cumulatively, this pattern of disruption highlights the social implications of this new technology. I found that the benefits cards were both creatures and creators of social inequality and marginalization. They changed the way respondents related to themselves and one another. The cards enabled new forms of social control and surveillance over beneficiaries, and engendered new forms of resistance to this perceived control. This research suggests that providing access to a new payment technology does not ensure users will engage with it in expected or normative ways. Moreover, in systems of control, such as the social assistance system, those with limited power are thoughtful about how they engage with technologies with surveillance potential and how their data might be used against them. This research also has implications for social policy, highlighting unanticipated consequences of how people responded to a new technology intended to encourage normative financial behaviour. Finally, as scholars such as Eubanks (2006; 2018) and Magnet (2011) have shown, new technologies are often first piloted on marginalized individuals. As consumers continue to move away from cash it is increasingly important to consider the implications for all consumers.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2020
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
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