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CONTRIBUTION · 12th February 2010
Carrie La Porte
Just who are the poor? Your television shows us the Third World, with victims of famine, drought and war. Who are our Canadian poor? They are not merely stereotypical Welfare recipients. We are among the wealthiest countries in the world and yet over a quarter of a million Canadians are homeless, and a larger number live in substandard housing.

The number of working poor in this country outnumbers our social welfare recipients and, says Statistics Canada, they are mostly employed full-time, year-round, yet unable to work their way out of poverty. Hidden within those two groups are our poorest group, children, with Aboriginal children being the poorest, followed by children from visible minorities, and children with disabilities. Aboriginal children are twice as likely to live in single-parent homes, and twice as likely to have disabilities as the national average, according to the Canadian Council on Social development. Additionally, Aboriginal children are less likely to stay in school, are four times as likely to be hungry, mostly live off-reserve, and only one-quarter speak Aboriginal languages. It is apparent that there is a clear correlation between the loss of culture resulting from forced assimilation and the cycle of poverty in which our Aboriginal children are now trapped, to the detriment of us all.

Patriarchy is at the heart of today’s social problems. When two-parent families receive social assistance, the cheque is issued to the “head” of the family, the man, despite the fact that the mothers are usually the ones who buy groceries and necessities for the children. If a woman has received provincial disability, she loses this when she enters into a relationship with a working man, thereby becoming financially dependant and vulnerable. As well, in most cases she loses her medical benefits, jeopardizing her health and/or the family budget. In cases where the family is still eligible to receive the assistance, it is again given over to the man to dispense as he deems fit. It is important to note that while men with disabilities also may live in poverty, they are more likely to have had earnings that entitle them to CPP Disability or other better pensions, and are far less likely to be single custodial parents.

Regrettably, child protection agencies have little funding for prophylactic measures, and there is a tendency to blame mothers for familial problems. If a mother reports that she has an abusive spouse, then she is considered negligent, having “failed to protect” her children; if she says her children are hungry, then they have “failure to thrive.” Since women earn just three-quarters of what a man receives, and are usually the principal custodians in family breakups, thereby plunging deeper into poverty, why are we not asking why the women stay as opposed to blaming them for not leaving? Ironically, if a woman places children in foster care to ensure that their basic needs are met, then this is considered “abandonment.” Why is our social network not helping to strengthen and preserve families, and ensuring that women have the wherewithal to provide for themselves and their children?

Despite some social advances over the past couple of decades, one out of five seniors live in poverty and, since women live longer, and command less earnings, the majority of impoverished seniors are also women. Although women are taught to stay with an ailing spouse, men are more likely to abandon a wife who becomes sick or disabled. As well, women with disabilities are in a high-risk group for spousal abuse.

When one considers that Terrace has a large Aboriginal community and a growing number of seniors, many of whom will develop disabilities, then these social issues seem of paramount importance.

What should we, as an affluent society, be doing? Create adequate, affordable, accessible housing. Support community gardens, collective kitchens, and food co-operatives. Provide affordable daycare, affordable elder-care, and respite care for overtaxed families. Offer inclusive, affordable education. Ensure that women have economic independence. Offer job-sharing in the workplace so mothers and persons with disabilities can work to the best of their abilities. Create barrier-free buildings. Make prevention part of agency mandates. Include consumers in the planning of community programmes. Help people to help themselves!

(an original, copyrighted work, no reprint w/p permission)

photo of the author and her daughter in a community garden