Opinion Column

EDITORIAL BOARD: Pamela T. - Only one face of poverty in Canada

By Patricia Anne Elford

Pregnant when she left her abusive husband, Pam moved to a basement bachelor apartment. A drapery track enclosed a small section behind the bed-chesterfield as a mini-nursery for the child to come. She continued her half days teaching in a private school. Pay was poor, there were no health benefits, but eating a cheap, cholesterol-heavy lunch in the school cafeteria helped stretch food money.

Many working poor have work hours just below the total legally required for benefits provision. The poor tend to eat cheaper, filling, high fat and high sugar, less nutritious, food, leading to less ability to cope and health problems for themselves and their children.

Using hammer and screwdriver, Pam constructed "furniture" made with angle irons and boards, attached to an unfinished dresser and a real bookshelf she'd had built while married. One board section, "the table", wore a cloth. Another section, topped by goose neck lamp and manual typewriter, fronted by a folding chair, was the desk.

After being ticketed just before Christmas for parking her shabby Austin mini, (with front floor hole covered by a mat), on a "better" side-street, Pam moved it to a paid public parking lot.

Poor people face discrimination from those who haven't been, or aren't, poor. This can result in damaged self esteem and an inability to use inherent gifts that could have benefited wider society.

Birth Day! Friends rushed her to hospital. The newborn, though full-term and of good weight, arrived with breathing difficulties. William's life began, tubes attached, in incubators for about two weeks. A hospital nurse had recommended she take pills to dry her milk, but Pam wanted to give him the best start possible.

Children born of women under stress are more apt to be premature and/or have difficulties.

Pam could see Will, but not touch him. Finally, an invitation to bottle feed feed him! Tension had reduced her milk. From the beginning, she had to supplement with formula, a costly matter.

Most poor persons live with chronic tension, which has long-term health effects for them and their children.

While she'd been in hospital, the car, whose broken door lock she'd pretended to close when she'd parked in the "guarded" lot, had been stripped of its tires and the gears ruined--a write-off. Public transportation it would be. In the Ottawa Valley, she'd have been out of luck.

The poor can't afford to follow up on crimes, to sue for contracted services not rendered.

The apparently compassionate social worker assigned to Pam when she'd applied for maternity benefits began to phone her late at night, telling her of his marriage dissatisfaction, wanting to visit--another burden. Challenge: keep from antagonizing him, without submitting.

Vulnerable poor can become victims of those with financial/situational power over them, and afraid to report inappropriate treatment.

Maternity leave over, Pam again taught half days, leaving Will with an elderly woman in the next apartment. Hazel could feed him the bottle, change him, turn him and comfort him but could not safely lift him out of the carriage. The caregiving was free, but dangerous because of Hazel's fragility.

Poverty means many infants and children are placed in life- or health-threatening situations by parents struggling to provide shelter and food.

An uncle helped Pam move to an over-the-hardware-store apartment, near the school, lugging her belongings up the fire-escape. As they worked, items were stolen from the rented van.

The store owner/landlord provided paint for the apartment if Pam would paint. She raided a curbside garbage pile to create a grape-box bookshelf. Struggling up and down the narrow stairs with the stroller and baby, with teaching material containers or groceries or with laundry pulled in her two-wheeled shopping cart to the laundromat while pushing the stroller, were regular routines.

Pam repeatedly asked that the heat be turned up. Though baby Will now had his own room and second-hand crib, too often he slept, snow-suited, bundled in Pam's arms, huddled under inadequate covers on her fold-out bed, she, wearing her winter coat. The cold didn't discourage the cockroaches (one of whom waved its antennae each time she entered one doorway) any more than the spray she'd bought, nor did it trouble the mouse that gave birth in the closet.

The poor, desperate for shelter, are often at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords

At first, Pam took Will in a carrier to put him into a folding playpen in the classroom, something she couldn't have done in a public school. The day milk spread over the typing class floor from Will's dropped bottle, a supervisor dropped by. Time for child care!

Pam found a home caregiver with an immaculate house near the school. One day, Pam overheard the woman, miserable in her own marriage, slap and shout at baby Will for not staying still as she changed his diaper. More than a diaper needed changing!

People, ill-suited to providing home day care, continue to do so. More regulation is required, and, assistance for home day-care worker training. Many who do the work lack sufficient education and money themselves to make more personally suitable choices.

By applying for bursaries and grants, Pam could return to part-time university courses, working, and living on campus in a new building dedicated to married students with children. Starting as a temporary contract worker, she gained a regular half-day job in one campus office.

Money for educating those who qualify for higher/specific education is an investment in efficient use of available talent and in reduced public health care and medication costs.

In Pam's one-bedroom furnished apartment, a screen divided the bedroom. Soon, Will slept on a mattress on a low twin-sized platform. Child's eye-level pictures decorated his "room's" walls.

Working half days, adding typing contracts to survive, taking turns working in the overcrowded, co-operative day-care centre and paying fees, paying for a sitter when attending night classes, carrying a full course load with studying and papers--sometimes Pam wept from weariness and tension.

Single parents, mostly women, are among the most impoverished Canadians and carry responsibility, with little or no relief, for raising their child(ren). Assistance needs to be available for these parents to live and work with dignity, giving the child(ren) the foundation needed for a healthy, productive life.

Overcrowded, unregulated day-care centres can cause supervision problems, biting and other antisocial behaviour.

When Pam wandered, hand-in-hand with Willy on campus, when they split a weekly milkshake, fries, toasted-cheese treat in a cafeteria, Pam knew she was one of the fortunate. Furthering her education meant she could spend half days with Will in a vermin-free environment and be better able to support them both in the future.

Experience shows that funding paid to mothers or fathers who wish to stay at home with their younger children pays off in happier homes and more community involvement.

When she graduated, having rented academic cap and gown, Pam couldn't afford a corsage. The one she made wilted--curled up its toes, but neither that, nor the student loans repayments that loomed, could wilt her joy as she was handed her diploma.

Student loans which enable, and require, impoverished students to use their gifts to become contributing citizens, are worthy of Canada. More realistic repayment schemes with less or no interest, particularly when immediate employment is not guaranteed, would considerably reduce the stress level in the families involved, as do grants.

I know Pam. She's real. Though definitely poor at the time recorded, she'd already had some education and work experience. Many others are not so fortunate, or suffer incapacitating mental or physical health problems.

To be poor is not a sin, though the impoverished are often treated as if it were. To be poor is not to be an inferior human being, though society tends to treat them as such.

In Canada, the number of persons, including the growing group of working poor, who are living below the poverty line, sadly reflects on her social systems. The final answer is not well-intentioned, feel-good stop-gaps of handouts, food banks, soup kitchens and holiday meals/baskets.

Estimates place the cost of poverty on the Canadian health care system alone at $7.6 billion.

Systemic poverty is the root cause of many health and social problems, not including economic toll. Creating lasting and meaningful plans using a human rights framework to address poverty does cost, but not nearly as much as doing nothing. Proven: Proper provision for the poor actually pays off for a country. (World Health Organization)

In addition to CHILDCARE and AFFORDABLE HOUSING, INCOME SECURITY and FOOD SECURITY are necessary. Over one decade, by addressing these issues, the United Kingdom raised 1.1 million children out of poverty! CANADA'S turn!