“The widespread nature of prejudices and misinformation about people living in poverty is a major obstacle to reducing and eliminating poverty,” said Auréa Cormier, a long-time justice worker and member of the Moncton chapter of the Common Front for Social Justice. “Lies and stereotypes about people living in poverty provide a false justification for viewing poor people as the authors of their own misfortune, rather than victims of circumstances beyond their control.”
“This kind of ‘blaming the victim’ compounds the suffering and misery inflicted on innocent people by creating an excuse for not helping them, and so makes the situation even worse.”
A campaign to expose the most common prejudices, myths and lies about people living in poverty will be launched in early 2020 by the Common Front. The campaign will include radio advertising, media interviews with people who have lived, or are living, in poverty, and a Community Action Poverty Simulation by some prominent citizens of Moncton that graphically demonstrates the limitations of a welfare budget.
The Poverty Simulation exercise shows how poverty is inseparable from a variety of other issues. For example, a participant taking the role of a single parent with limited resources and no transportation could be asked to find a way to get his or her child to daycare. Similarly, how would an elderly couple be able raise their grandchildren while living within their own limited food and accommodation budget?
The research data used by the Common Front to identify the most common prejudices against the poor comes from a series of focus groups on poverty it sponsored earlier this year with both people on social assistance and community service providers attempting to help the poor.
Common Front’s research shows that in New Brunswick the three most common prejudices about people living in poverty are: “they are lazy and don’t want to work;” “they should get off booze and drugs;” and “they choose to be on social assistance.” Other stereotypes uncovered about the poor include: “they are using the system;” “they waste money on unnecessary things; “and they are “good for nothings.”
“These prejudices and falsehoods, and outright lies do enormous damage by providing a rationale for doing nothing about with the real causes of poverty,” Cormier said. “People on social assistance do want to work, but they face a number of barriers when looking for a job.”
“For example, the expenses connected with travelling to and from work are not covered by social assistance, and in rural areas the lack of public transportation is a huge barrier,” she said. “In some cases, choosing to work actually leaves one worse off financially and thus creates additional hardship for a person’s family.”
“Tragically, the Department of Social Development’s wage exemption policy can actually discourage some people from working, instead of helping them re-enter the workforce.”
One of the most vicious lies used to slander people receiving social assistance is that “they should get off booze and drugs.” Statistics Canada does collect data on heavy drinking, which it defines as more than five drinks for men, or four drinks for women, on one occasion at least once a month.
“A 2015 report by Health Canada’s Chief Medical Officers notes that people at all income levels engage in heavy drinking,” Cormier said. “The truth is that Canadians with high incomes and social status are more likely to engage in heavy or risky drinking than those with low incomes and social status.”
Cormier cautions that “one must also keep in mind that the links between socioeconomic status and drinking are complex and influenced by many factors. For example, in the United States, a person’s genetic make-up is reported to account for 40% to 60% of a risk of addiction.”
Similarly, the third most common myth about people living in poverty identified by the Common Front, that “they choose to be on social assistance,” has no basis whatever in fact and is just another way innocent victims are blamed for circumstances beyond their control.
“The research that has been done shows that those who apply for social assistance do so out of necessity, not by choice,” Cormier says. In July 2018, as part of its on-going research, the Common Front interviewed 16 people trying to live on meagre social assistance rates.
Of the 16 people interviewed, eight had applied for social assistance because of physical health problems, including disabilities, while another six needed help because of mental health problems, and two had unforeseeable changes in their lives that forced them onto social assistance. Contrary to popular myth, these 16 people did not seek social assistance to have an easy life, and are now struggling to escape the bondage of poverty.
It is no accident that myths and lies about people who live in poverty are so deeply entrenched. In 2009, delegates who signed the New Brunswick Economic and Social Inclusion Plan, including the then Premier and Minister of Social Development, agreed that a campaign to fight prejudices against the poor was a necessary first step to eliminating poverty. Their poverty reduction plan recommended the Province of New Brunswick “develop a strong public awareness campaign which is critical to the success of the poverty reduction strategy.”
But no such public awareness campaign has ever been undertaken by either Liberal or Conservative governments here. As a result, myths and stereotypes persist, as does the vilification of poor people by those ignorant of the real causes of poverty.
The Common Front’s campaign set for the new year aims to change all that, and to encourage the provincial government to stop using punitive and cruel social assistance rates to make life harder for those most in need.
When people living in poverty are lucky enough to get hired, they are often laid off or fired because they are unable to meet the rigorous requirements of some employers. Even getting to a job can be impossible without money for transportation. For those with children, a lack of night time child care can make evening or night work impossible. When child care is available, its cost can leave a family worse off financially than before.
There are now close to 35,000 individuals receiving social assistance in the province. Most receive $537 per month and are generally forced to live in run down one-room apartments deprived of most necessities, including adequate food. Against all evidence, the Department of Social Development insists such starvation rates are reasonable.
Those who have a medical report stating their inability to work for six months, or are over 55 years of age, may get $576 a month, and the disabled receive $763 a month. Only those living in invincible ignorance or wilfully turning a blind eye could believe a disabled person can live on $763 a month.
“Our campaign is going to tell the truth about people living in poverty,” Cormier said. “We want the daily cruelty now being inflicted on those receiving social assistance to stop. It’s gone on far too long already.”
Dallas McQuarrie is a Media Co-op writer living in the unceded Mi’kmaq territory of Signiktuk.