As of 2016, an alarming 19.9% of Fredericton’s population was living in poverty. Poverty is a difficult concept to define. Definitions typically discuss human rights, a lack of resources, and an inability to meet a certain standard of living. A definition of poverty can be important in helping people to understand what this social issue entails. Most of these definitions lack context and the human stories behind the term. How does one end up in poverty? What makes it difficult to overcome? What is an adequate standard of living? To state it simply, poverty is not often well understood in society. To understand what this term truly means, we must turn to those who know it best, those who are living in poverty in our own province.
Social assistance is described on the government of New Brunswick’s website as being a “payer of last resort”. This financial assistance is what many people must turn to, after having proved that they have exhausted all other methods of receiving income. To better understand poverty, we had a discussion with someone who has been using this type of assistance for the past seven years. They described their experience as isolating and degrading, with treatment that led them to feel like a burden to society and a criminal. They explained that they live with their children in an apartment in an area that is not child-friendly. They’ve tried to find better housing but are often turned down because they receive social assistance. Government policy restricts them from living with a roommate to split rent. They must hide every penny gained from outside sources, as these are automatically deducted from social assistance.
When asked about changes they feel should be made, they responded: “policies need to be changed, but how do we change an entire culture?”. The culture they are referring to are the mainstream beliefs held by many about those living in poverty. They explained that the general public often views people on social assistance as using the system and simply taking their tax dollars. They described that the people who work in government or who make policy decisions are so out of touch with poverty that they have no idea how their decisions affect the lives of those who need this monthly cheque to survive. Policies such as the household income policy (Not allowing individuals who are drawing social assistance to reside with another person without the other person’s income being considered) and child support payment deductions (every dollar received from child support payments is reduced from social assistance cheques) act as unfair barriers and challenges for people who rely on a meager $537 for a single person per month.
This community member explained that celebrating Easter and birthdays with her children means eating boxes of Kraft Dinner and canned food items until the next month. Poverty is more than an income line that people fall under or above. The Market Basket Measure (MBM), used in Canada to determine poverty rates, does not demonstrate the entire picture. This measure cites $19,296 per year as the income line that defines if a single person is living in poverty in New Brunswick. There is a large number of Canadians living in poverty, a number larger than what the statistics show. Poverty is more than homelessness. Poverty is the experiences of struggling to put healthy food on the table, to afford medications, to heat your apartment, to have bus fare to go for medical tests, or to have the safety that owning a cellphone brings, simple basics that allow individuals to have a positive quality of life.
There are many factors that need to be changed in the social assistance act. The regulations previously described do not allow people to ever gain the stability necessary to lift themselves from poverty. This act, however, cannot be changed if public perceptions are not changed first. As a society, we need to stop viewing people in poverty as criminals who are stealing tax dollars. We need to better understand the difficult cycles of poverty and the policies and regulations that disadvantage people daily. We cannot continue to act like poverty is someone else’s issue. We must all work to change the negative views on those living in poverty, as well as advocate for the government to make necessary changes in the social assistance act.
Megen Gaudet, Rebecca Arsenault and Jalen Borden are social work students doing a social action placement involving raising awareness on poverty and social assistance policies at Fredericton MLA David Coon’s constituency office.