A Grinding Response to Poverty

Published in the Globe and Mail newspaper on May 15, 1992

I’m one of the “working poor”. Single mother is another one of my labels. I’ve lived in poverty for 33 years, as I too was raised by a single mother, spent several years as a university student, and then worked in professional theatre. And I’m sick of it: not the poverty (although more money would be nice), but our society’s response to poverty. It ranges from patronizing support to outright discrimination.

When I decided to continue with my pregnancy, many people told me I couldn’t afford to have a child – as if children are a sort of luxury commodity for the rich, like boats or horses. As if financial success is the sole indicator of one’s parenting abilities. Never mind intelligence or education or resourcefulness or stamina. Never mind creativity or family support or friends with “hand-me-downs”. Never mind the DESIRE to have a child. And yes there are poor people with all of the above attributes and rich people come with no guarantee of any of them.

I’m on my way to my son’s daycare, after work, sitting on the Dundas streetcar, reading recycled (through me) magazines. I flip to the back page of the September 1990 issue of Canadian Lawyer. And I feel as though I’ve been slapped in the face. The title of the article by family lawyer Karen Selick, reads: “If the Poor Don’t Care, Why Should We?” After claiming that poverty is caused by poor people having children, Ms. Selick concludes: “The truth is that many people earn their poverty.” Below a picture of her is a painting of a hand begging for money. A bag containing cigarettes and beer hangs from the wrist. I guess stereotypes, by definition, are unoriginal.

The stereotypes of the poor and the simplistic explanations of why people are poor (they keep having children, they smoke, they own dogs, they’re lazy) must be challenged. Poor means poor. Every other attribute or characteristic of poor people can, and often does, apply to people in other income brackets. We don’t have a monopoly on vice, poor judgement or irresponsibility.

Just as women often have to work twice as hard as men to be seen as equal, poor people have to be three times as virtuous as the rest of society to be deemed acceptable as human beings. The standards are the highest for those with the least resources.

Yes Ms. Selick, poor people earn their poverty, but not the way you describe it. They might choose to continue with an unplanned pregnancy (even if it means going it alone), they might be brave enough to end a destructive marriage, or creative and convicted enough to pursue a career in the arts. They might be determined enough to finish a graduate degree at university. Or they might be born into poverty or become old or sick. They might, through no fault of their own, lose their job and be unable to find another one right away.  Their business might face bankruptcy during a depression or they might work as hard as the next person in a job that society deems unworthy of decent pay or any pay, for that matter.

All of these circumstances involve a struggle with poverty, but that fact says more about the values of our society (attitudes toward women, children, the aged, culture, aboriginal peoples, minorities, thinking, menial labour) and the policies of our governments than it does about the characteristics of the poor. Poor people are the scapegoats of a spoiled society; it’s easier to blame the sufferer and throw some welfare at her than it is to restructure the method of distribution, from the start.

When I was in Grade 10, our teacher made us wear blindfolds for a whole day as a lesson in being seeing impaired. Some of us had to wear the blindfolds from the moment we woke up. I lasted about an hour because I had to cheat and tear off my blindfold so that I could run to catch the school bus.

So what do poor people need? Each situation is unique. Many, not all, need financial assistance. Some need re-training, day-care subsidy or decent, affordable housing. Most need time. You don’t dig yourself out of poverty overnight. But all poor people need respect and understanding that their struggle is a real one, a lengthy one, a difficult one and one not usually of their own making. They need empathy, not sympathy. Support, not handouts. They need to be asked why they are calling and then listened to, not pigeonholed into the file on the next person’s desk.

Our social welfare system exists, supposedly, because we believe that everyone has the right to the necessities of life. And yet the plexiglass barriers and worn-down offices of our welfare buildings, with their hand-drawn signs telling us what we must do (and not do) and when, send a contradictory message.

The message is: if you financial help for necessities, you have failed. And since you’ve flunked the big test, you can’t be trusted and you don’t really matter. No one comes out of a welfare office feeling as though they have any rights left. Or any dignity.

There is a sign in one family benefit office in Toronto that quotes Eleanor Roosevelt as saying, “No one can make you feel like a second class citizen without your consent.” Oh really? Try it. Try living in poverty. For one day. You might not even make it as far as the bus.