This is a group portrait of the small and, anonymous minority of Canada’s poor who eat up the lion’s share of the money and, help given by all welfare services. Many of them have made a career of staying on the relief rolls down to the third generation — and their numbers, if anything, are growing

Jane Becker November 4 1961


This is a group portrait of the small and, anonymous minority of Canada’s poor who eat up the lion’s share of the money and, help given by all welfare services. Many of them have made a career of staying on the relief rolls down to the third generation — and their numbers, if anything, are growing

Jane Becker November 4 1961


Jane Becker

This is a group portrait of the small and, anonymous minority of Canada’s poor who eat up the lion’s share of the money and, help given by all welfare services. Many of them have made a career of staying on the relief rolls down to the third generation — and their numbers, if anything, are growing

THIS MONTH Canadians are being asked to give more than $31,000,000 to United Appeal and Community Chest drives to help finance voluntary agencies giving social, health and welfare services to as many people as need or ask for them. Between forty and fifty percent of Canada's 4.000,000 families will use at least some of these services during the next year. What almost nobody knows and hardly anybody has ever suspected until recently is that a small fraction of these — probably no more than 120.000 families all told — will consume about half of all the money and services available from both public and private agencies. They will cost from two thousand to five thousand dollars a year for each family — between $240,000.000 and $600,000,000, altogether, in direct financial aid and in the time and salaries of the social workers trying to help them.

These are the people that sociologists call troubled, chronically distressed, resistant, or, most often, multiproblem families. In ordinary language they could be called the undeserving poor, distinguished from the deserving poor chiefly by the fact that they are victims not primarily of circumstance but of their own ineptitude. They are not just the first people to swell public welfare rolls when times are thin: they are almost never off the rolls, even in a boom. Most are on the casebooks of several social agencies and. with an average "history" of at least seven years, many have settled more or less permanently on the lists.


Plagued by poverty, bad health, and large families which they can't handle either financially or emotionally, most have little hope of surmounting their situation. Their problems stem from their own dearth of education, their mental limitations, and just plain lack of moral fibre. Their troubles are so constant that no sooner has one smoothed itself out than three fresh ones arrive to take its place.

What worries sociologists most is that this pattern of dependence and maladjustment continues from generation to generation ("How would the children know any other way of living?" one observer asked), with troubles growing rather than decreasing. Vancouver, which has done extensive research into its problem families, has uncovered a number of thirdand fourth-generation households getting social assistance. One such family has 230 relatives—all known to agencies. The Social Planning Council of Hamilton has found that

more than a third of the parents and grandparents of children in the care of the Children’s Aid have been on agency lists themselves. Dr. Joseph Lagey, research director of the Community Chest and Councils of Greater Vancouver, calls such families “a malignant growth on Canadian society—slow, insidious, and capable of undermining our well-being.’’

Many observers believe that, far from fading as general prosperity rises, problem families will multiply as the country becomes more urban, life more complex and competitive, and as automation reduces the number of simple jobs which until now have kept some of the mentally dull and uneducated in the labor market. Miss Mary Jury, an area supervisor for the Neighborhood Workers Association in Toronto, says about a third of the cases in her district—a downtown, slightly run-down one— arc such families. “Their basic problem is their inability to deal with the complicated life of a big city,’’ she says. "In a small community they might get by without outside help. But coping with crowded living conditions, high living costs, big schools, high-pressure salesmen and a highly-varied community takes more adaptability and mental ability than they possess.”

Gradually they fall farther and farther adrift of the main stream of life around them. To face the future they become either cheerful delinquents or gray scrubbers, to use labels coined by one sociologist. The delinquents work out their frustrations on society. Father may be a destructive drunk who frequently beats his wife or wrecks the furniture. Mother, a sloppy housekeeper without enough money or equipment, may have stopped trying. She often spends her time gossiping with the neighbors or drinking whisky in the kitchen.

The children may play truant from school, appear often in the juvenile court, and end up with a term in a training school or reformatory. They all cause trouble for police, neighbors, and the Children's Aid. Yet, these families often get along well together, and have a close-knit, albeit chaotic family life.

The gray scrubbers, on the other hand, retreat inward. Beset by troubles beyond their capacity to change, they give up hope, become either completely dependent on outside help, or resist it totally. Father may spend most of the day in a tavern or lying around the house, too discouraged or too ill-equipped to look for work. Mother frequently meets each crisis with some vague illness which confines her to bed. The children are listless, without ambition. Their family life, like their life outside home, is pointless and isolated. These are the most difficult of all to help.

Such families are hard to identify. (In the cases that follow, the families are real, but their names have been changed.) Unlike unfortunate people who get caught up in a depression or a wave of endemic illness, these families do not have their plight broadcast by agencies. Social workers are reluctant to pinpoint them since they represent a failure for the agency too. In fact, it usually takes long, close study to know for certain that their chronic indebtedness, their delinquency, and their slovenly housing conditions are due to their own

weaknesses rather than outside circumstances.

A great many don’t ask for help or won’t accept it when offered. Others become knowledgeable cadgers, making little effort to become less dependent as years go by. One northern Ontario man has been living contentedly on welfare money for years. He’s not only made no effort to find a job himself, but each of his sons, shortly after getting married, has gone on the welfare rolls. The agency doling out the help is at its wit’s end. “We’ve run out of arguments to try to convince this man and his sons that working for a living is a good idea,” a representative told the Ontario Welfare Council last spring. "After all, they ask, why should they? Yet we’re afraid to stop the payments because of the small children involved.”


What stands out clearly from a number of case histories is that despite all the money and time spent on them—these people show little or no improvement. London, Ont., was recently spurred to mapping out a three-year pilot project for intensive treatment of fifty of its most troubled families after discovering that about 250 chronically distressed households for years had been going through about half a million dollars a year in social aid, without an iota of permanent progress to show for it.

For her graduate thesis in social work, a University of Toronto student, Renée Roseman, recently traced two "hard core” Toronto families over their twenty-five-year history with social agencies. Each was the third generation of its family to receive help. Altogether, sixty-four social workers from nineteen agencies worked a total of forty-two years trying to straighten out the lives of the seventeen people involved. The families had cost $53,000 and $62,000 respectively, in salaries, financial aid and care of the children. Yet their situations were still basically the same as they had been when the workers first met them.

In the Ambrose family Mr. Ambrose, unskilled and poorly educated, had worked only intermittently for twenty-five years. He drank heavily and was rarely home. The family had lived in the same five-room house in a depressed part of town, on between twenty and thirty dollars a week, for twenty-two years. All but one of the eight children dropped out of school at Grade Eight or sooner. Five of the sons had been in juvenile court, and the eldest had fathered a child, later married its mother, been sued for nonsupport and assault, and finally divorced. The youngest boy had serious behavior problems and couldn't get along with other youths. He had had homosexual experiences with a man in the neighborhood. One daughter was a borderline moron, had been jailed for vagrancy and had given birth to an illegitimate child w'ho was sent to a home for retarded children. Except for one son, who had finished Grade Ten and was doing well as an apprentice electrician, the children showed no more promise of pulling out of their situation than their parents. Yet thirty-one workers from twelve agencies had made fifty-eight visits to the Ambroses, held

eighty-five office interviews with them, telephoned them fifty-two times and written eighty-three letters.

On the surface the Borovs caused less trouble. Yet their situation was really worse than the Ambroses'. They had involved thirtythree workers from seven agencies over seventeen years, had had a hundred and seventyfour home visits, sixty-two office interviews, ninety-five telephone calls and a hundred and forty letters. Unskilled at fifty-eight. Mr. Borov had managed to earn between thirty and fifty dollars a week for some time, but had recently been laid off his job, with little prospect of another. He and his wife were married after their oldest child was born; they fought constantly. Mrs. Borov, a sloppy housekeeper, was subnormal mentally and could barely read and write. They had provided such an inadequate home life, in damp basement apartments, for their five children that only one was still living with them. Three others were in foster homes and a fourth had been adopted. None had any close contact w ith each other or with their parents. The Borovs had no friends, no community life. Mr. Borov regularly beat his wife, but the two never quite got around to separating.

Similar situations are found all across the country. So far. only Vancouver and London have studied their multiproblem families seriously, but Vancouver has found 2.800 families —three percent of the city's total and about six percent of all those accepting some kind of aid—with multitudinous problems. They probably use about half the annual $5.365.000budget of the city's principal social agencies.


In Charlottetown, the Protestant Family Service says twenty-eight percent of its clients use between fifty and seventy-five percent of its funds. Halifax finds its five hundred problem families form slightly more than six percent of its total case load. Two Montreal agencies estimate their multiproblem families at between five and eight percent of their cases, and in Cornwall, beset with serious unemployment and housing problems, almost half the Family Service Bureau's seventy-five cases are problem families. One social worker says the percentage of families using the bulk of the welfare money in her area rises and falls in relation to the number of jobs available.

Yet the machinery which could help these families toward a more normal life, ease the drain on the public coffers and give the children a fighting chance, is hampered by lack of money and organization and by the way our social aid system has grown up. Social service in Canada is largely a piecemeal affair. The public health nurse calls to see that the baby is being fed properly; the Children’s Aid follows up reports of child neglect; the city welfare department determines if the family is eligible for welfare, and organizations like the Big Brother movement try to straighten out a delinquent son. But no one takes responsibility for the whole family. A crisis may bring all the officials to the doorstep in force. ("I feel as if I’m


Continued from page 15


We warn them, beg them and finally — ignore them

living in a goldfish bowl,” a London woman complained, after a dozen agency representatives had arrived following a family fracas.)

Yet, between these peaks of trouble, when consistent help might bring permanent results, no one comes around. Deryck Thomson, executive director of the Greater Vancouver Family Service Agency, calls this sort of thing “Band-aid thinking.”

"Some of these families have been caseworked, group-worked and community-organized, put on and taken off social assistance rolls until they’re dizzy,” he says. "They have been pleaded with, cajoled, threatened and finally ignored.” Overworked and understaffed agencies frequently have brushed them under a carpet of vague sociological phrases in an attempt to forget the whole thing. Here is Thomson’s translation of some of the phrases:

"The multiproblem family”—such total confusion exists in the family no one could be expected to know where to begin;

“The family doesn’t really want help"— we haven't found the right kind yet;

“The family is nonmotivated” — its members avoid office interview's;

"The family is resisting the caseworker”—we aren’t sure what we are supposed to do with this situation.

To co-ordinate help, welfare workers say agencies must co-operate in planning long range, intensive aid. preferably channeling all service through one worker, geared to work with the whole family rather than its individual members. Agencies admit one barrier to starting is their own preoccupation with the status quo.

Agencies guard their rights

By agreement one social agency doesn’t invade another’s field of service. Usually one agency doesn’t even know if another has some of the same people on its casebooks. Guarding their prerogatives, many have so far resisted any pooling of information that would let them know quickly if they were duplicating services or, conversely, leaving gaps in aid to particularly troubled households. More than thirty years ago a listing of those on agency rolls, known as the Social Service Index, began to come into use in a number of Canadian cities. It has now been abandoned in all but one or two. Some agencies claim ’ it was misused (loan companies would check to see if prospective borrowers were getting aid) but it was probably the best system of checking on total agency service yet devised. One social worker has suggested that today's troubled families may suffer as much from the caution of those organized to help them as they once did from glaring public relief lists.

When an agency is able to work closely w'ith a problem family, it is often hampered by lack of money. The family income, supplemented by welfare and public assistance payments, often just isn’t enough even for basic needs.

"We’re asking the most inadequate group in the community—those with the fewest skills and least management ability—to live on the smallest incomes,” says Kate Macdonncll of the Ottawa Welfare Council. Last winter the OWC, aided by eight social agencies, made a report on fortyseven multiproblem Ottawa families. It found that in the nineteen families where the man of the household had a steady job,

the average family income was $231 a month. Most families had five or six children and paid an average rent of eighty dollars a month. Yet a budget prepared by the Montreal Council of Social Agencies sets $282 as the “absolute minimum” needed for a family with five children, allowing sixty dollars a month rent. With family allowances added, the Ottawa families’ incomes still fell below this by $15 a month. For the majority, living on public welfare or unemployment insurance, the gap was much wider.

A few years ago most social workers would probably have said that, in the face of all these obstacles, the problem family was an inevitable part of modern life. Today, however, many are looking hopefully at results of a six-year experiment in St. Paul, Minn., which has had notable success in helping some of the most dejected families. St. Paul decided to throw its energies into a pilot project after a three-year survey revealed that about six percent of the county’s families were using more than half its total health and welfare resources—about $12,000,000 for approximately 6.000 families annually. Financed partly by a $90,000-grant from a private family foundation. St. Paul agencies picked 140 families “from the bottom of the social heap” and delegated six fulltime and two part-time social workers to help them exclusively over the following three years. By agreement no other worker visited the families during this time. Through consistent, determined visits — whether welcome or not—the caseworkers tried to ferret out the causes of alcoholism. bad health, neglected or delinquent children, and family feuding. Then they worked with the families to overcome these conditions permanently. By the time the experiment ended in 1959, St. Paul had some impressive results to report: sixty-five percent of the families had changed for the better; nineteen percent were unchanged, and sixteen percent had changed for the worse. Oddly enough, families that at first had been thought the most hopeless, when they did progress, made the greatest gains of all. The others chalked up small but consistent moves forward in such things as training their children. their own behavior and family relationships.

The whole project cost about $400,000. St. Paul is still working with some of its problem families on the same basis, al-

though it has dispensed with the professional staff.

Most trained observers believe it’s impossible to help everyone. “The emotional deficiencies of some families make their cases almost hopeless,” says Mary Jury.

Lack of money in Canada is a formidable hurdle in starting projects on the scale of St. Paul’s. Because the public is not nearly so enthusiastic about giving money for research as it is about “direct service,” private foundation funds or government grants are essential. Any program of intensive help to a relatively small group in the community is going to be expensive — though not nearly so expensive as doing nothing for them. It will mean cutting the cases of the social workers from the present thirty to fifty each to about fifteen. It may also mean hiring professional staff to set up the project, do research, and assess results. For its pilot project. London says it needs $45,000 a year, or $900 for each family helped, over and above the direct financial aid which most of them are already receiving. Vancouver is looking for about $400,000 in federal and provincial grants to start an area treatment project for problem families and do more basic research into causes. The city is already attempting to help hitherto “unreached” families—with a Joint Family Services project now in its fifth year with between 150 and 200 families on its books.

In Toronto, social agencies, downtown settlement houses, clergymen and the University of Toronto school of social work are laying the groundwork for a plan to help multiproblem families. If the Vancouver proportion holds, there are more than 11,000 of them in Metropolitan Toronto.

Most people, according to Miss Lillian Thomson, executive director of the Neighborhood Workers who sparked the Toronto meetings, are inclined to think of the undeserving poor as “just a lot of rotters, not worth helping.”

"We blame them for their brushes with the law. their dirty houses and drinking problems. What most people don't understand is that these parents were once neglected children. One of their difficulties has always been feeling everyone was against them. We must convince them it's not so. Otherwise our problem families will increase, and continue to be one of the most serious and frustrating worries we have.” ★