I am not ashamed to admit that I am living in poverty, so there it is; I am. It is likely partially my own fault for not preparing for change properly. Other than that, I feel little responsibility for ending up where I am on the economic scale. I would like to discuss what living in poverty means to me and where my descent has taken me.
While I do not have any money, I feel that I am not poor. I know there are many who are much poorer than I am in spite of the fact that month-to-month I have no disposable income and negative discretionary income. I believe that poor is a state of mind rather than an economic status. While I am being supported by the social assistance regime, I refuse to let the system diminish my pride and thus render me truly poor.
While being monetarily poor and poverty are important topics of discussion, I would rather talk about what poverty has done to me as an individual. I would also like to address one method to actually eliminate poverty rather than treating the symptoms.
The human race is at the top of the food chain not because of our strength but because we have learned to adapt more successfully than other creatures. It seems the lower you are on the economic ladder, the better you become at adapting. Those living in poverty and especially the homeless are true masters of adaptation.
A few of the adaptations I have made on my spiral of descent into poverty:
I have adapted from earning a six figure salary to having an income something over $7,000 per year.
I have adapted from having hundreds of friends that I saw on a regular basis to having a few friends that I see infrequently.
I have adapted from eating in the finest restaurants to eating at the Salvation Army and Out of the Cold (more on that later).
I have adapted from driving wherever I had to go to walking everywhere unless it is a week where I am fortunate enough to have a bus ticket.
I have adapted from HAVING places to go to having limited places that I can afford to go.
I have adapted from having a full pantry to using food banks on occasion.
I have adapted from paying less than 1/3 of my gross income for housing to paying 2/3 of my income for housing.
I have adapted to the reality that if you are over a given age and definitely over 60, you will not be offered any job.
I have adapted to the reality that if you are over a given age and definitely over 60, you will not be offered any job.
The longer the economy continues on the course it is on, the more people there are that are being forced to make some of the same adaptations. It is a test to which nobody should be subjected.
I want to tell you the end result of the adaptations that I have had to make. The first thing that happens when you go from making six figures to falling into poverty is that all of those people that were 'friends' turn into acquaintances. It has been said that if you make five true friends in your life, you are indeed fortunate. Falling into poverty lets you know how many true friends that you have made in the course of your life. Even those 'true' friends become distant though. They want the best for you but you cannot afford to exist in the society that they still inhabit. So, you quickly find out that your economic status is likely the biggest determinant of who your friends and acquaintances are going to be. As you can imagine, depression quickly follows the realization that your former social safety net has disappeared and you must find people who will form your new milieu. You cannot imagine how difficult that can be when you are starting from a point of depression verging on desperation.
I was recently in to see a psychiatrist to determine whether I was clinically depressed or just run of the mill depressed. That is a topic for another discussion. I explained to her that my depression was a function of the lack of social inclusion. I can do without a lot of money but it is the things that money allows that I miss. One of her suggestions for overcoming that lack of social inclusion was to visit the Mental Health Centre because they have a lot of programs for just that sort of thing. I am not here to disparage the mentally ill or mentally handicapped but I wonder if they seriously think that would be an answer to the problem. I think that I might find it rewarding to volunteer my services there but to have any kind of high level discussion about anything over a beer and to enjoy the ambiance of where you are is not likely to occur. So ultimately, your coterie of friends quickly becomes other people with no money and nowhere to go other than the library and the employment centre.
I cannot speak for those that have lived in poverty all of their lives; there are many who could address that better than me. Regardless how you get there though, I believe that the end result is the same. It is a daily struggle with few, if any rewards. It also leaves you with a different mindset. At the end of each month, social assistance cheques are delivered and for a brief time, those who receive them are 'rich'. A friend of mine introduced me to the phrase “millionaire weekend”. That is the few days after social assistance cheques arrive and there is an apparent surplus of money. Most people who receive a regular pay cheque look at those on social assistance and wonder why they have a tendency to blow their money at the beginning of each month. They are not living with the pressures, the stigma and the grueling situation that poverty places on those who are compelled to live on 1/3 of what it would take to even be at the poverty line. Once a month, there is a feeling that you are a 'real' person and have the ability to do what 'real' people have the ability to do every day of the month. So they take their money and pretend that they are 'real' people and buy stuff they cannot afford and have a party or buy their drugs or whatever it is that they do to escape the existence they inhabit and pretend.
Eating with friends was a daily occurrence in my previous life. I seldom ate alone and if I did, it was because I chose to. When you are existing on social assistance, just eating can be a problem whether it be with friends or alone. I am lucky living in Hamilton because of the excellent Out of the Cold meals in the winter. If you are willing to walk all over the downtown core, you can receive at least one meal a day. The generosity of those running and supplying the meals is truly astonishing! On any given night they serve upwards of 200 people who otherwise may not eat that day. That program only runs November through March though so it is necessary to find other means of nourishment during the summer months. One can utilize food banks but even there you run into problems. You can only make one trip per month to a food bank and what you receive will not feed anyone for a month. What you are receiving is also not even marginally conducive to maintaining health. If you have a gluten allergy food banks are practically 100% useless. It is ludicrous to believe that you can actually shop at a grocery store for food. There just is not enough money to buy retail. I have to admit that I gave up on food banks. I am thankful for the Salvation Army. For $10 per month, you can get a meal ticket that will give you one meal a day all month. A better deal cannot be found! There is the issue of getting there though. I live a 30-40 minute walk one way to get there. Taking a bus on a daily basis is out of the question so in order to eat once a day, I walk over an hour to get there and back.
Fortunately, walking is not foreign to me. That is my primary source of transportation. If nothing else, my lower body and cardiovascular are likely in the best shape the have been in since I was a teen. It does make it difficult if I want to go anywhere outside the downtown core of the city though. Anything on the 'mountain' is practically inaccessible since there is no money for transportation. Consequently, despite all that Hamilton has to offer, I am restricted to free venues that are walking distance from downtown. Somewhat restricted in comparison to having subscriptions to Roy Thompson Hall and going to any venue without thinking about cost.
I started off by suggesting that I have made enormous adaptations in my lifestyle just to stay alive. In spite of the regime that delivers the minimal support that I do receive, I am grateful that I get something; it is better than far too many others in the world. It does astonish me that it costs more to deliver the paltry amount that I do get than the amount that I receive. That's right, it costs more to administer the money than what I receive. I want you to think about that for a moment. The surveillance model that the government has adopted to deliver social assistance leads to this outcome. Outcomes in Hamilton have shown that there is approximately three percent fraud occurring in the system. That is on par with any other system involving people. The Canada Revenue Agency assumes that approximately three percent will cheat on their taxes and audit that many returns every year. As you can imagine, their 'policing' costs are infinitesimal compared to the policing costs of Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program. When people complain about the costs of social assistance, their thoughts immediately go to the people that are receiving the funds with no consideration that it is costing them more to administer that money than the end users are receiving. You and I know that there is much wrong with that scenario.
I am going to suggest that considering the adaptations that people receiving social assistance have to make that it would not be a great deal to ask the government to review the entire structure of the bureaucracy. It has been their habit to make band-aid solutions and adaptations rather than look at restructuring the entire system. There is an even better solution that has been talked about for over four decades. That is a guaranteed annual income.
What a guaranteed income would do would eliminate poverty immediately. You could do away with the grotesque costs of administering social assistance, do away with food banks, do away with the concept and administration of minimum wage and do away with much of what is euphemistically called the poverty pimps. For those of you not familiar with that term, they are people who make their living studying poverty, advising governments and other stakeholders how to deal with poverty, help those living in poverty and generally make their living from those living in poverty. You have all heard the acronyms for far too many groups like this and the entire poverty industry is enormous consuming commensurate amounts of taxpayer money. While those involved in that industry may be doing some good, I believe they could be far more productive working in other areas of social endeavour.
The initial cost of such a system would likely be rather high but there has been much study and many papers written that demonstrate that the costs would ultimately be less than the current system. The savings would obviously come from a much smaller bureaucracy. Poverty hides many costs that would also be lessened. As the Hamilton Spectator Code Red series pointed out all too graphically, people living in poverty have a life expectancy that can be up to 20 years shorter than someone living above the poverty line. It isn't like people in poverty just up and die one day either. There are a lot of physical and psychological problems that cost the taxpayer enormous amounts of money before they have the good grace to die. Because of their destitute situation, many turn to crime; from petty shoplifting to drug distribution, robbery and murder. Even without looking at statistics, when you think of murders in Hamilton or any other major city, is your first thought that it is committed among the well-to-do or is your first thought that it is drug related or related to domestic violence committed on and by people living in poverty? The statistics will bear out your hunch.
By changing to a system of guaranteed income, business would also benefit. There would be more money in the economy. This will inevitably spur growth leading to more jobs and more productive jobs. It may spur the governments to spend more time goading industry to get off their 'dead' cash mountains and invest in the economy thus creating even more jobs. If market forces do not make companies pay enough to get people above the poverty line with wages, government would realize rather quickly that it is imperative to put pressure on industry to raise wages. It would almost seem self-evident that a rejuvenated economy would allow companies to spend more on their employees in order to keep them healthy and productive. The only down side would seem to be the initial cost. In this time of false austerity and worries about debt, that is a problem.
One look at history will tell us that banks and large corporations are the only ones that benefit from austerity measures. There is no upside for the economy, no upside for individuals who do not start in the top percentile of wealth, no upside for anyone other than banks who are allowed to scoop up more of the economy for pennies on the dollar due to forfeiture and the increased wealth that they accumulate from having their debts paid back with interest or forfeitures.
After World War II, there was no rush to close down the economies of the world to pay off debt accumulated during the war. There was an outpouring of cash from governments to spur the economies to move into a post-war mindset. I don't believe that any of the major countries disappeared from the face of the earth due to that spending. Rather, we saw a golden age come from that and the creation of a middle class that had not been seen prior to that and has certainly shrunk a great deal since because of bad government policy. A rejuvenated economy will quickly recover any money spent on changing a system from surveillance and punishment to a support and education model. As always, the trick is educating the great unwashed masses that is the electorate to point out what is best for THEM rather than what is best for industry.
Adapting is a human condition that will not change. As a society, we are going to have to make great adaptations to come to terms with the global society that is evolving. Widespread poverty is one of the inevitable outcomes of the changes to come. Addressing that issue is going to be a defining moment in our evolution as a nation and as a species.