COVER

CANADA'S FORGOTTEN POOR

Leonard Shifrin January 30 1984
COVER

CANADA'S FORGOTTEN POOR

Leonard Shifrin January 30 1984

CANADA'S FORGOTTEN POOR

COVER

It is a time for optimism for most Canadians. The annual profusion of economic forecasts and analyses is more encouraging than it has heen for years, a genuine sign that Canada has emerged from its worst recession since the 1930s. But an accompanying—and startling— reality is rarely analysed: in Canada, one of the most affluent nations in the world, the numbers

of people living in poverty are actually increasing. The new economic recovery is a blessing for the majority of Canadians who are still working, but it is simply not providing many new jobs. A t the same time, the old support systems are leaving increasing numbers of desperate people with barely enough income for survival. Some of them are losing hope.

Leonard Shifrin

The old woman hesitated, then she put the can of tuna fish back on the supermarket shelf. Maybe next week, when her pension cheque arrives, she will be able to afford it; until then she will make do with toast and tea. In a schoolroom a child tries to concentrate on his lesson, but his mind wanders. He cannot play in the after-school hockey league because there is not enough money in a welfare cheque for things like hockey equipment. His mother explained it all to him, and he knows there is nothing she can do. Still, it seems unfair.

Those scenarios of genuine poverty are played out in Canada every day. In 1981, according to Statistics Canada, 3.5 million Canadians were living within its definition of poverty. In 1982 the number jumped to 4.1 million. The 1983 figure, which will not be available until fall, will probably be roughly 4.4 million. After a dozen years of decline, poverty has returned in earnest, largely because of unemployment. And now a jobless economic recovery threatens to make poverty a lasting legacy of the great recession.

Echoing the 1930s, churches and social agencies are again attracting long lines at their soup kitchens and depots offering free groceries to the needy. “A few years ago,” said Brother Justin Howson of the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd order, who runs the organization’s centre in Hamilton, Ont., “it would be an unusual day if we served 80 dinners. Now we often have 240 people in line for the meal.” As well, there has been a big change in the kind of people coming for the free meal. It used to be mainly transients, “hobo types,” he declared. Now there are people of all ages, including teenagers and even five-year-olds. “These are not starving children,” he added, “just children who are hungry because there is not enough food in the house anymore.” Indeed, Canada’s poverty is not the abject sort found in the Third World. The common measure is what Statistics Can-

ada delicately calls its “low income cutoffs,” the levels at which families must spend more than 58.5 per cent of their incomes on the three chief necessities of life: food, shelter and clothing. Because those costs are highest in big cities, StatsCan calculates five sets of cutoffs for each size of family, with the lowest set being for rural areas and the highest applying to metropolitan areas with populations of more than 500,000. For a family of four in 1983 the poverty lines ranged from $14,110 in rural areas to $19,180 in the largest cities. “Those numbers may seem fairly high,” said National Council of Welfare Director Kenneth Battle, “but the Statistics Canada figures are actually the lowest poverty thresholds anyone has formulated in Canada.” Both the Senate committee on poverty and the Canadian Council on Social Development have suggested ways of measuring the phenomena that produce higher poverty lines. “In any event,” added Battle, “most poor Canadians have incomes thousands of dollars below even the lowest of those standards.”

Between 1969 and 1981 the proportion of Canadians living in poverty was almost cut in half, to less than 15 per cent from more than 25 per cent. In part, that reflected a variety of government initiatives, instituted mainly in the early 1970s, as Ottawa expanded the unemployment insurance program, tripled family allowances, increased pensions for low income senior citizens and added a spouse’s allowance for 60to 64-year-olds married to low income pensioners. At the same time, six provinces established additional supplements for the poorest older people. But that was only part of the explanation for the decline in poverty rates. There was also a major influx of married women into the labor force, increasing the number of twopaycheque families at the same time that lower birthrates were reducing the number of people to be cared for in those families. Then the crush of unemployment descended, and hundreds of thousands of households suddenly found that the paycheques they counted on had disappeared.

The measure of a society’s social safety net is not how

effective it is in good times but how efficient it is in the bad. The 1982 poverty data published recently by Statistics Canada showed where the nation’s safety net held up and where it let people down badly. Single workers were no more successful at holding their jobs than were those with families, but the big increase in poverty levels was in the family categories. That is because Canada’s unemployment insurance plan is primarily a system designed for singles, providing benefits high enough to keep one person above the poverty line, but not a family. The most striking demonstration of that was the 1982 experience in the 25 to 34 age bracket. Among singles, the poverty rate actually went down by half a per cent. Among families, it went up by four per cent.

But hardest-hit of all were female-headed, single-parent families, whose already sky-high poverty rate jumped a further eight per cent, driving fully half of those families below the poverty line. That turn from bad to worse is all the more chilling because the number of mother-led families is growing at such a rapid rate that one in six of all families with children is now headed by a single female parent.

The poverty figures for 1982, when unemployment aver-

aged 11 per cent, startled many experts. But the numbers will be even worse for 1983, when the jobless rate increased further to a post-Depression record average of 11.9 per cent. What is more, by the end of last year the unemployment insurance safety net was becoming less effective. In the spring of 1982 the number of people receiving benefits was 95 per cent of the number unemployed. By the fall of 1983 it was down to 75 per cent, despite the efforts of federal and provincial governments to recycle the unemployed back onto the unemployment insurance rolls through job creation projects offering just enough weeks of work to qualify participants for another round of benefits.

A missing link in Canada’s income security system, as the poverty figures demonstrate, is any provision for the children in the families of the unemployed. That was not always the case. From the time of the 1972 expansion of the unemployment insurance program until 1975, when the provision was repealed, unemployment insurance used to provide benefits of as much as 75 per cent of former earnings to those with dependents. Now there is a 60-per-cent maxi-

mum for everyone and, as a result, the poverty rates for both oneand two-parent families have jumped substantially.

When the federal government repealed the dependency rate provision, it said the measure would no longer be needed because a federal-provincial social security review was to produce a comprehensive income supplement program for all low income families. Instead, the federal-provincial process collapsed a few months later, producing nothing. Saskatchewan launched its own family allowance supplement for low income households, a program that now provides up to $91 per month per child. Manitoba later followed with a more modest version, offering $30 a month per child.

In 1982, with its low income families on unemployment insurance able to collect the supplement, Saskatchewan was the only province in which the poverty rate did not increase. In fact, it actually went down slightly. And in Manitoba, with its smaller supplement, the rate went up by only half the national average. Ottawa had offered to pay twothirds of the cost of the supplement programs before the federal-provincial negotiations fell apart more than eight years ago. But it has since declined to make the amendments necessary for such programs to qualify even for the 50-per-cent cost sharing that it provides to traditional welfare programs under the Canada Assistance Plan. Its only move to help low income families was the creation in 1978 of the refundable child tax credit, which now provides mothers with a maximum annual payment of $343 per child.

For the most part, the federal government’s recent antipoverty efforts have been directed toward pensioners. It increased the guaranteed income supplement for low income senior citizens in 1979 and 1980 and promised another increase in last month’s throne speech. Two years ago Ottawa created the Labor Adjustment Benefits program, which helps some people in the pre-pensioner category. Laid-off workers over the age of 55, if they have spent most of their working lives in an industry designated by the government as undergoing severe economic dislocation, can receive the equivalent of continued unemployment insurance benefits until they turn 65. Qualifying industries can be designated on either a national or a regional basis but, because very few have actually been designated, fewer than 3,000 people are currently receiving benefits under the program.

The most hard-pressed of pre-pensioners are widows, and only a tiny proportion of them qualify for federal benefits. When a person aged 60 to 64 and married to a low income pensioner begins receiving a federal spouse’s allowance, she (or in rare cases he) continues to get it until age 65, even if the pensioner-spouse dies before then. But only 6,000 widows and 200 widowers are currently in that situation. Last year Alberta became the first province to try filling the gap by providing the equivalent of a full pension to all low income widows and widowers over the age of 55.

There are many measures available to combat poverty. It would take just a few programs aimed at the various groups among the poor to reduce Canada’s poverty rate to almost zero. “The problem,” said Patrick Johnston, executive director of the National Anti-Poverty Organization, “is that poverty does not have a high enough visibility so that governments are pushed to adopt the measures.” Every month Statistics Canada provides updates on how many people are unemployed and what is happening to inflation. But poverty figures are only reported annually and not until almost the end of the following year. “If Canada had a monthly poverty index and we had been getting new instalments of the bad news every 30 days for the past two years,” added Johnston, “there would have been such a groundswell of demand for government action that maybe by now the poverty news would not be bad anymore.”

Divorced, 37, and a father of four, Arthur Gouchie of Amherst, N.S., has two formidable adversaries in his struggle against poverty. One is the fragile economy, which the former crane operator and carpenter blames for his inability to find steady work since he was laid off three years ago when a local steel company closed down. The other is the Nova Scotia government, which refuses to pay Gouchie family benefits, even though he supports the children. Under provincial law, family benefits—which would amount to substantially more than Gouchie’s $121 a week from unemployment insurance—are paid to single par-

ents only if they are women. In the fall of 1981 Gouchie set out to challenge the law but was finally defeated in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia last June.

Gouchie’s total income last year from unemployment insurance and intermittent work was $6,800. Besides unemployment insurance payments, Gouchie also receives about $120 monthly in federal family allowance for his children, aged 11 to 15. He spends about $80 a week for food and, once he pays the bills (Gouchie owns his small bungalow, but he must pay his ex-wife $30 a month to purchase her share of the house), there is little money left. To save money, he quit smoking last year and instead of toys he gave his children clothes and boots for Christmas. As well, he asked his sister to give him several rolls of

wallpaper for Christmas to upgrade the house. His one treat to himself during the festive season was a case of beer.

Still, while Gouchie tries to remain cheerful, he is finding it difficult to deal with the constant idleness and isolation. “One of the worst parts of it is being home all the time with no money to get out—to go somewhere,” he said. “I have not been to a dance since I don’t know when. I feel like an old maid, stuck in the house all the time.”

Although he realizes that the recession has a lot to do with his situation, Gouchie also blames himself because he left school after Grade 10. “I could kick myself for not staying in school longer,” he said. “I would tell people, if you have a good job, hang onto it. Do not abuse it.”

At 61, Bert Vokey says that his life has come full circle—from destitution to destitution. When Vokey was a child in Newfoundland during the Depression, his family often experienced severe poverty, especially when his fisherman father had a bad season. But Vokey, himself a father of five and a onetime janitor who has been out of work since the mid-1970s, said that he is facing even greater hardship now than in the 1930s. “I have had it worse in the past 12 months than I ever did since the day I was born,” he said.

Vokey, his wife, Remona, 50, and their children, aged 15 to 25, have been struggling for more than a decade to avoid poverty. But they say that they began to lose the battle a year ago, when a chimney fire destroyed their subsidized house in Harbour Grace, on the west side of Conception Bay. Provincial authorities moved them to a public housing development on the outskirts of St. John’s, but they have found it difficult to adapt to their new home. The Vokeys were on welfare even before they left Harbour Grace, but Bert Vokey says that his family could manage then because elder sons William, 25, and Lome, 20, brought in extra income from casual labor or jobs in local fish plants. But in St. John’s none of the Vokeys’ four children who are not still in school have been able to find work, mainly because they can scarcely read or write. At the same time, Bert and Remona say they are not healthy enough to work themselves.

The family receives $650 a month from social assistance, in addition to almost $60 in monthly family allowance payments for the two youngest children. They do not pay rent, but they have to lay out an average of roughly $140 a month for heating. The lack of money and jobs is taking a severe toll. Said Bert Vokey: “My wife and I are not getting along; none of us are. My 18year-old daughter twice tried to kill herself since we came here, and my wife was in the hospital for the same thing [taking an overdose of medication] in September.” The family has become dependent on the Salvation Army and other charities. Added Remona Vokey: “We are beggars, and me and my husband and children are not used to that. If changes are not made soon here, this family is going to be broken up.”

Marlene Fidler, 26 and twice divorced, lives with two of her children, Anson, 9, and Joulene, 7, in an old downtown Vancouver hotel, The Hazelwood, on the fringes of the city’s skid road. “I don’t mind it here, but I don’t like it for the kids,” she said. “It is hard to judge people around here. You just do not trust the people.” But it is hard to find better accommodation when a social worker advised her not to spend more on rent than than $410 out of the $760 that she receives in welfare payments.

Fidler has been on welfare since she

was laid off as a waitress two years ago. She has lived in the hotel ever since she moved to Vancouver from Saskatchewan three years ago, after leaving her husband. There is a padlock on her door to discourage thieves, but there is little of value inside—a bed and dresser in one room, and a bed, one chair, a desk, a small fridge, a sink and a two-burner hotplate in the other. There is no telephone and she shares a hallway bathroom with other residents. The one luxury is a small color TV. Said a stoic Fidler: “I would feel better if I had a different place, with a bathroom and a kitchen. Other than that, I think I’m doing okay. I keep things to myself.” Then, she added, “I don’t say I’m on welfare, more or less because I’m ashamed.”

Job hunting is frustrating because she has few skills; her father made her leave school early to look after her brothers and sisters. Now her main challenge is stretching the welfare cheque each month. “I borrow from friends and pay them back when I get my cheque. Then, before the third week is up, I’ve got to borrow again. It goes like that from month to month,” she said.

Fidler needed a crisis grant from welfare to buy clothing for her children this month. She gets her own secondhand clothing from a nearby church. Concluded Fidler: “I was better off when I was working. I was bringing home the bread. This way you are dependent on someone else.”

For Sandra Sundquist, a poverty-level income means constantly having to say “no” to her five children, aged 7 to 16. The 37-year-old Surrey, B.C., divorcee, who has relied on public assistance since her marriage ended nine years ago, had to rule out Cub Scouts for her son Robert, 9, because she could not afford the $25 registration fee. Nor could she allow 10-year-old Cathy to join Girl Guides, because Sundquist does not have a car to drive her daughter to the meeting hall. Recently, some of the children wanted to go to the Ice Capades, but that, too, was unaffordable—as are movies. “Sometimes the kids will run to their bedrooms crying and say, ‘You don’t like me,’ ” said Sundquist. “But I know when they are older they will understand.”

Sundquist faces formidable obstacles as she tries to support her family with the $582.50 a month she receives from welfare and family allowance. She last worked full-time, stocking shelves at Woolco, 11 years ago. Since then the responsibilities of motherhood have limited her to occasional part-time work. The $600-a-month rent on her five-bedroom house is provided by the province, but Sundquist still has to pay $180 a month for heating oil. She makes her own jams, jellies, bread and baked goods, and every fall she buys a few hundred pounds of vegetables to store in the garage. “But lots of times, we do not have money for meat for weeks,” said Sundquist, “or we go for weeks without milk—and that bothers me.” Sundquist is somewhat better with clothing because she is a skilled seamstress and has a knitting machine. Besides making a lot of her children’s clothes, she sews clothes and crafts for other people in order to barter for food and other necessities.

At times, the problems become overwhelming for Sundquist. “When my kids go to bed at night and I am all alone, I think, ‘Is it always going to be like this?’ ” she admitted. But, for the most part, Sundquist retains her optimism. “I have a house that looks reasonably nice,” she said. “I have a lot of friends. ‘Poor’ is the people in other countries you see on television who do not have any food and who live in shacks. I feel very fortunate.”

Frederick Robertson, 44, has been separated from his wife and two sons for IV2 years because of unemployment. He has not even had enough money to visit them in Blairmore, Alta.—a $14.90 bus trip from Calgary where he is looking for work— since October. Robertson said that he is “surviving, not living” on $87 a week from unemployment insurance benefits. He cannot afford to telephone his 12and 14-year-o'ld sons because neither he nor his wife, who is on welfare, can afford a telephone.

Only four years ago Robertson was living relatively comfortably in Victoria and working as a hotel desk clerk. But as interest rates increased he found it difficult to meet his mortgage payments. As a result, he decided to leave Victoria three years ago, and that is when his descent into poverty began. Robertson moved with his family to their native Blairmore. But there was no work there, and he went on alone to Calgary to look for a job. He eventually found a $4.50-an-hour position as a

dishwasher and later as a short-order cook for a Calgary restaurant. But four months ago, after one year in that job, the restaurant closed. Now he has given up on any chance of going back to the hotel business. “Things happen to poor people,” he said. ‘Tm sitting here with no upper denture plate; my hair is down to my neck; I do not have a decent suit. I could not present myself to the front desk of a hotel like this.”

Robertson can scarcely afford to buy food for himself on $87 a week. He said that he has difficulty cashing his weekly unemployment insurance cheque at most banks because he has no bank account of his own. As a result, he takes them to a broker, who subtracts a $5 service charge. That leaves him with $82, and $55 of that is used to pay rent.

When he is not looking for a job, Robertson works as a volunteer at Calgary’s Unemployed Action Centre, where he counsels other impoverished people and hands out food hampers. “I talk to guys in here who were making $25,000 a year a couple of years ago, and all they can say now is, T never thought I would have to do this,’ ” Robertson said. “It drives you crazy and makes you bitter.”

It is difficult for Patricia Watson of Nanaimo, B.C., to ask her two teenage daughters to drink only one glass of milk or orange juice a day. And it hurt to tell 16-year-old Jennifer recently that she would have to wear a beat-up, three-year-old coat again this winter because there was no money for a new one. “It is just all the little things like that that add up,” said Watson, a 36-year-old former bookkeeper who lost her job a year and a half ago when business slowed down. Since then, she has exhausted her unemployment insurance and resorted to welfare. Jennifer, Patricia and her common-law husband, Wayne Bouchard, 39, live on $840 a month in welfare, as well as $29.95 monthly in federal family allowance. (Daughter Carol, 14, has been in a foster home since October because of learning and behavioral problems.)

Like Watson, Bouchard has exhausted his unemployment benefits. “I cannot give my family what I think a man should be able to give his family,” he said. He has held several jobs in the past as a sales manager, but the only work he has been able to find during the past year and a half was a job shovelling gravel on a construction site—and that lasted only a few weeks. The transition to unemployment and idleness has been tough. “I was more or less a workaholic,” said Bouchard, “and stopping dead after 22 years was a real blow to the system.” It is still a struggle to keep his spirits up. “It is a waiting game, and you just have to bear with it. You just have to keep yourself in the right frame of mind,” he said.

Both Watson and Bouchard say that the fight against depression is a difficult one when they are left with only $345 a month after paying bills, including $400 rent for their three-bedroom house. It means that they cannot buy fruit because it is too expensive, they can seldom use their car because of the cost of gas. Meanwhile, Watson says that she has almost given up all hope of finding a job. “I have called every bank, every department store, every place that has financial jobs,” she said. “The banks just laughed. They said, ‘You can come down and put in your application, but every three months we just throw them away.’ ” Bouchard tries to be philosophical about his plight: “We all got —>iled in the good old days, back when worked,” he said.

Claude Beaudry, like many other Canadians in 1984, has been out of work so long that he no longer qualifies for unemployment insurance. For him, poverty does not just involve pinching pennies and frantically searching for another job. It is also a form of psychological oppression. “It makes me feel like nothing, if you want to know the real truth,” said Beaudry, a 31-year-old Sudbury father of three sons, aged 1 to 8, who was laid off for a second time by Inco Ltd. at the end of 1982. “It is not something to be proud of. Every man wants to be able to provide for his own family on his own.” Added his wife, Deborah-Ann, 29: “You have to worry that there is enough food to eat, that the kids are not going to starve.” After losing his $9.35-an-hour laborer’s job, Beaudry collected unemployment insurance until the eligibility period expired last July. His family now depends on $645 a month from welfare (up from $614 last year) and $89.85 in federal family allowance payments. The Beaudrys said that as they began to adjust to not having any money, their car and television both broke down, aggravating the boredom and sense of claus-

trophobia. Meanwhile, their financial situation has become desperate. Last October Beaudry took a job as a doorto-door vacuum cleaner salesman and borrowed $350 from a finance company. But Beaudry had little success selling a relatively expensive item in a community where many people are unemployed and he gave up after a month. Now Beaudry is three months behind on his $70 monthly payments for the loan, and he is concerned that his furniture or his broken-down car will be confiscated. The family has had to turn to the Salvation Army, the Roman Catholic Church and the United Steelworkers— Beaudry’s former union—for help at times when even their welfare money ran out.

For now, the Beaudrys are looking forward to moving into a $151-a-month, four-bedroom apartment in a public housing development after a lié-year wait—a welcome change from their $235, two-bedroom flat. Still, the Beaudrys expect that life will remain a grim struggle unless Claude finds another job. He is often depressed and irritable, and he is now convinced that only a “miracle” will create more work. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. “I have to find a way to pay that finance company.”