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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A pain called poverty

I've been taking notes both in my head and on my computer for weeks but it has taken me a long time to face this topic: poverty.

I realized that this was an issue that cut close to the bone when CBC radio ran a feature on the The Current about poverty in Canada. When I heard the promo ads for the piece I stared to feel tight and anxious inside. On the day of the program, I listened and cried. I knew I had been poor but I didn't realize that it still hurt.

My story of poverty started when my parents got divorced when I was nine-years-old. As many women who experience divorce find out, the end result is poverty. My father did give us support but to split his income between two houses meant one household would end up poor and that was the one which was supporting two children.

I remember well the first house we moved into after my mother left my father; it was a small two story house with two bedrooms upstairs and a living room and kitchen downstairs- very similar to the house which I have rented for the past 2 ½ years. The only real problem with renting this house- over renting an apartment- was the lack of white goods. We had no fridge, no stove, no washer, no dryer.

It was February, snow drifted by the front and back door. That however was a boon to us at the time. The winter in combination with the space between our summer and winter storm doors served as our fridge and freezer. The missing stove was a more serious problem.

One of the things that my mother had received as a parting gift from my father's family was an old electric kettle from great-aunt Dulcie. With that kettle we attempted to cook an entire chicken. Why my mother would have bought a whole chicken when we didn't have a stove I don't know but through repeated dousing of boiled water- after several hours we ate chicken; pale white, watery, and with the texture of rubber. I can't remember any other 'boiled' dinners that winter. Not long after we moved we bought a second hand fridge and stove.

Another of my most ingrained memories of that most impoverished time from my childhood was donuts; donuts with pink and blue icing from Farmer Brown's restaurant in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

In an effort to safe money, we first rented a house in the community of Heatherton, about 10 minutes from Antigonish, which I guess afforded us a weekly treat—an evening out at Farmer Brown's.

I am guessing these forays into town took place on either Friday or Saturday nights as we were out late and would not have been on a school night. The evening consisted of my mother, sister and I sitting around a thickly varnished wooden table nursing hot chocolates like a reluctant bar patron after last call for several hours while we waited for the donut clock to wind down to midnight when every donut would be on sale for 1 cent.

We usually arrived about 10 pm and sat and watched. Were there many good donuts on the shelve? Would someone come in and steel our well-waited on donuts at 11:55 for 5 cents a piece? Some nights ended in disappointment. No donuts, or only plain remained at midnight. Other nights we would come home with 0.50 cents worth of donuts. The freezer was jam packed with donuts after such a haul and all the kids at school thought I was so lucky to have donuts in my lunch everyday.

A few years later we moved on to the next stage of life. My mother was a nurse, she had a job and never worried about working enough hours, my sister and I had access to the child support my father provided and took our friends out for lunch at the White Spot in North Vancouver where we were living in my 12th year.

We had made it through. We weren't rich but we were no longer poor and I forgot about it.

Part of my mother's divorce downfall had been that she was not a marketable product. She had a BA from St.FX but had no job experience or skills other than in the food service industry. In those first few years after the divorce my mother got her RN's and in so doing ended our time in purgatory for purgatory is truly the station many divorced women find themselves in financially; supported just enough to be called equitable by the law by their ex-husbands, and making not enough through work to keep good food in the house.

Having gone through this experience as a child I thought I would be smart enough not to fall into the same predicament. I wasn't.

Just over four years ago I came home to North America from living in Asia for 10 years. I was broke, had a 1 ½ year old and soon found myself expecting another child. I was living in my aunt's front room and wondered how things had gone so incredibly wrong.

I had a masters degree. I had worked successfully in a variety of fields inventing and perfecting skills as needed. I was a professional chameleon who had met many career challenges in a variety of different fields yet here I was; penniless.

With my family's help I pursued more education- a course certifying me in phlebotomy-which would easily find me a job in the states where I was currently living should I be able to untangle the red tape holding me back from dual citizenship—my mother is an American but left in her late teens to marry my father in Canada. Unfortunately that was a puzzle I could not solve so with a baby six weeks old and a toddler 2 ½ I returned to Canada and to my father's house.

I stayed at my father's for one month. While I was still in Massachusetts I found an apartment to rent in my home town. I was not sure if I could afford to pay the rent but at least I had an option. At that point my ex was sending me $500 a month and the rent excluding utilities was $350. I couldn't think about how we would live on that much money- I just knew I had to do it.

At this point I ran up against some ignorance regarding my situation from an old friend of mine. He thought that $500 in child support was more than enough. Had he ever tried to live on $500? Let alone with two reliant children. No of course he hadn't. He was a single white male with a good job who had grown up in an upper middle class family. His father was a banker for god sake. How could he possibly think we could survive on that kind of money.

Of course my friend expected that I would have an income in addition to the $500. What he failed to realize was that even if I had been willing to leave my less than 2 month old baby in childcare, I would never make enough money to pay for the childcare. Upon my calculations I would take home before taxes $200 after paying for full-time childcare. Out of that I would have to pay some money for gas which was at an all-time high, and buy formula for the baby, approximately $100 per month because I would not be at home to breast feed her. More than likely I would be further in the red if I went to work, not out of it.

In that first month I was back in Canada and living at my father's I saved all my money- what little there was of it, to make sure I had enough money for the deposit and first months rent on the apartment I had secured for me and my small fragile family.

At this time, my baby was always hungry. I could nurse her for two hours straight and she would still want more. I bought formula and after a two-to-three hour round of nursing feed her a four ounce bottle of formula. She gulped it back as if she were a famine struck child in the horn of Africa. At this rate she would go through a can of formula a week. As she grew this would surely increase. That would mean $100 a month just to feed this child which I should have been able to do naturally and for free.

I sought out help in the form of a breast pump which I was provided free of charge by Guysborough Kids First; a family resource organization in our area. My life revolved around feeding, then around pumping and then feeding some more. Hours a day I would have either the baby or the pump on my breast trying to increase my milk production and thus reduce my need for formula which I could not afford. After several weeks the almost round-the-clock pumping paid off and my baby finally didn't want the bottle after breast feeding. She was finally full.

In the months that followed my ex increased his child support payment to $800. To my mind this still was very little for two children and one new mother to live on. I swallowed my pride and made an appointment at the welfare office. I brought all my required documents; proof of my rental cost, power bill, and the bank statement showing the amount of child support my ex was sending. According to the government I had too much income to be eligible for income assistance. I walked out convinced that you must have to be eating dirt to qualify for government assistance to save your family.

As luck would have it, I applied for my Child Tax Benefit when I first returned to Canada; doubting very much that I would receive anything as I had not worked in the country for 10 years and had not filed an income tax in all that time. Somehow, I was granted the child tax benefit and my income doubled overnight. Things were not perfect but $1,600 is enough to live on although I really wonder how many of you reading this could do it.

Another few years went by and things were good. We lived in a decent apartment building. I still didn't have much of a job; I babysat for my cousin for a ridiculous salary all the while wondering what my experience and education could offer me in terms of employment opportunities in Guysborough.

Guysborough is an area which is often referred to as under-employed. The unemployment rate is often pegged at the same number as the out-migration rate; 15 percent. So why then, you might ask, would I move to a place where my employment options were so limited? I had education and experience- certainly I could look anywhere in Canada and find a good position. I limited myself to Guysborough for one reason and one reason only; my health.

People who know me know that I periodically have bowel obstructions. These often require hospitalization several times a year. For my children, I had to live close to my family so that my kids would have a place to go when my inevitable hospitalizations occurred. So all my education and experience was at the disposal of my cousin for $35 a day, a wage I had been making hourly as a teacher in Bangkok several years before.

Although we were comfortable in our apartment, our neighbors were uncomfortable. They called the landlord to complain about the children crying, about my dog running, about anything. I got tired of waiting for the next call from the landlord about things I could not control and I decided when a house, which he also owned, came up for rent, that I would move. I could not stand the stress of my neighbors complaining about my everyday life anymore.

The house to which I moved, is a small two story building that is approximately 180 years old. To call it drafty would be an understatement but it was livable and alleviated some stress. However, my stress was soon to be amplified. My cousin, whose children I had watched the previous year, decided two days before I was to resume babysitting for her in the new school year, that her family thought my house was too unsafe for her children to be staying there. What I wonder at is why she thought it was good enough for my children?

After the first few months it became clear that this house was going to cost me more than just my small job- it was going to cost me thousands to heat. Starting in October, I spent $400 a month on oil to heat my small house. I filled in cracks with blankets, rags, and insulating foam. Covered the windows in shrink wrap and learned to live at 60 Fahrenheit, which was not comfortable.

To save money I would walk to the grocery store in the morning to get all the best discounted meat and produce; items that were on the edge of their expiry date. I did laundry only before 7 am so as to use power during off-peak hours thus saving cents per kilowatt hour. I babysat for one child infrequently but as of November of that year I had no idea how we would make it through the winter in this house.

Just as I was considering the option of the Food Bank for Christmas, a job, a full-time, using my skills, honest to goodness job, fell into my lap.

At that point I had a job-did it mean I would work? The problem was what to do with the children? My oldest was in a pre-school program that ran everyday from 9:00 to 2:15 but she was unable to take the bus to the school. I had a babysitter for the youngest child but she could not ferry the older one to and from school—she had too many children in her care to fit them into a vehicle safely to transport my child to school. I could not afford full-time child care for two children. What would I do?

Luckily people in my community stepped in to help me. Parents and caregivers of the other students in my daughters class took her to and from school every day without fail. It was tough to ask for help but without it my family would find itself in very bad shape.

These days things are definitely looking up- I am just about to move into my own home; a purchase I made from my savings this past year. Savings derived from part-time work, supplemented by EI (employment insurance) and child support payments from my ex along with that fabulous child tax benefit. All together, still technically living just above the poverty line for a single parent, two child family in rural Nova Scotia.

Now to return to where this started- the radio show. When I listened to The Current I felt a pain that I hadn't expected. This pain was highlighted when my oldest daughter who is six mentioned in conversation, “That was when we were more poor.” Before that time I had not known that my child knew we were poor. How did she know that? How did that make her feel when she went to school? Did she know she was poor before she went to school or was it that exposure to other kids and their expectations of material goods that made her feel poor? These are things I may I never know but I hope that when she is a grown up she doesn't feel an unexpected pain when she hears about the poverty experienced by others in this country.

The moral of this story is that poverty hurts, even when it is the kind of poverty that has a car, lives in a house, not on the street, and has never received social assistance or been a client at the food bank. This poverty, the poverty experienced by many working class parents and many if not all single mothers, is endured quietly by people in your community.

What most people don't know is that most people living on the razor's edge of poverty won't ask for help. Help has to be thrust upon them. So many single mothers I know would rather cry every night from frustration and hunger rather than take someone up on their offers of help. If you truly wish to help someone in this situation you must give that help completely, not just an offer, do something without offering first; make a meal, come to babysit the children for a few hours, give a card with a few dollars. All of these actions mean far more than the well intentioned offers of help.

I was lucky and had help from my family and my community when I needed it. That help made a big difference for me and my family. If you are a charitable person and wonder how you can make a difference in the world look no further than the families in your own community. Look at what people need to make their lives better and act to help them make it happen.

The one thing that I want to leave people with about being poor is that it scars you, makes you feel ashamed of your house, and your family. You don't want to invite people to your home for fear that they will find your duct taped flooring, which prevents some of the drafts from breaking through the floor, hideous. When you do invite people in you point out your makeshift attempts to make your house more livable and laugh about the results of your efforts. The laughter hides both your pride in your innovations and the shame you feel at living in such an unfit house.

Being poor was not something I planned and not something that I or anyone else should be blamed for although often the poor are blamed for their own situations. Your made to feel like being poor is your fault, you should have made better life choices, etc. We will never know other people, we can only hope to live humanely and help others without judgement.

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