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Privilege and Empathy – Welfare Food Challenge (Day 2)

$16 bought enough ingredients to make one hearty chili with millet leaving $10 left over for something else over the next 6 days. It’s a tasty meal but it’s the only thing I would technically have to eat for the next week, breakfast, lunch or dinner. This is breakfast, after having it for lunch and dinner yesterday I can already tell I’m going to get tired of this fast.

This is the 2nd post by HxBIA Executive Director on his participation in the Welfare Food Challenge this week. For the first post in the series visit here.

In posting images of my $16 worth of groceries to Facebook and sharing that I was participating in the Welfare Food Challenge yesterday I elicited a range of reactions; from congratulatory to confused to borderline contempt.  When looking at the image of the costs per month spelled out by Raise the Rates at yesterday’s press conference (see below) some of the comments posted to my Facebook page included:

“Why do they need a cell phone? To call the jobs they don’t have?”

“Incidentally – Welfare is not SUPPOSED to be comfortable. If it was, more would choose it as an option”

“If people want to make money, they can 90% of the people on welfare could work, they just don’t want to. There are jobs like work farce and labour ready that pay at the end of the day , and provide transportation to and from the work site. All one needs to do is show up. Then they can get any phone plan they like”

I can empathize with the frustration that able-bodied hard working people have towards “free rides” or those who abuse the social safety net. It happens, but all the data points towards this being a very small fraction of overall welfare recipients. What I think taxpayers should be more outraged by is the fact that our money is being handed over to record profit making multinational businesses in the form of corporate welfare, or to spoiled politicians in Ottawa. I’d much rather a single mother who was kicked out of home in her teens receive a portion of my taxes than Bombardier or Esso. Let’s get back to those statements though, because they’re revealing of feelings or positions that have become more prevalent in Canadian politics and therefore our public policies as the pendulum has swung to the right.

Welfare is not meant to be “comfortable” let’s unpack this one. I respect greatly the friend who made this comment and I know how hard he works. The statement as best I can tell is rooted in common dependency concerns that if welfare rates are too “comfortable” that the incentives to go and find a job will be diminished or destroyed altogether. On that note Switzerland is voting to adopt a guaranteed base national income of $2800 per month to eliminate poverty and decrease inequality. So asking for another $100 or so per month for BC welfare recipients to get their food budget up to what is considered the average healthy grocery bill for a week is by comparison a pretty modest request. Just over $60 per week is what Raise the Rates has compared the $26 we each get to use this week as an indicator of what is generally considered acceptable according to Health Canada.

An excellent example of welfare clearly not diminishing the drive to find work or start a business of ones own is the recent Provincial repealing of “claw backs” which allows those on income assistance to make between $200 to $800 more per month without losing their support. This has allowed some people who were in a welfare holding pattern to actually go out and get a part time job that they could handle and start saving up for a transition, deal with old debts and other things. It has taken a massive weight off some of their shoulders and given them a renewed sense of hope and energy. Like my friend Diane, who has actually put the hard work into starting her own company working with DTES artists and craft makers. She’s on disability, is a single mom in the DTES and is one of the hardest working people I know. I would describe her as “industrious” even.

There are some who just simply can’t work though, and for them do we as a socially aware and privileged province, country and city, believe that comfort should in fact be provided them or not? And what does comfort look like to us? I would encourage us to feel some empathy here. But there are also pragmatic reasons to alleviate poverty from a fiscal policy standpoint.

There is a difference between being “comfortable” and being undernourished, filled with survival anxiety and placed in a poverty trap where you have just enough to survive. I would hope that at a minimum “comfort” would actually be considered a basic human right in so far as this means the minimum nutritional requirements and a place to live are afforded for by welfare rates, at the very least. Is that enough comfort? Because welfare rates as they currently stand, for those in Vancouver, make you walk the razor’s edge between food and shelter in a very precipitous and precarious lived experience.

$610 per month to live in the most expensive city in Canada and one of the most expensive in North America is nowhere near comfort; and that’s exactly the problem. We are subjecting welfare recipients to an unreasonable, one hand tied behind their back situation where it becomes increasingly difficult to get off welfare because basic nutritional requirements are not being met. For those that are relatively healthy, hours that could be spent accessing training or education, searching for work (that one is physically able and or qualified to do) or actually making that extra $200 per month working are spent in food lines to get that next meal or clinics dealing with a host of medical issues that are overwhelmingly brought on by poverty itself. Try going to Labor Ready to lift rebar and plywood all day on an empty stomach or with a skin infection or lung infection from mold in your SRO. And that’s just for those who can work, for those who are not dealing with mental or physical health barriers, emotional scars and trauma etc. The awareness Raise the Rates is spreading is not about asking for comfort as much as it’s about asking for rates that reflect the rising cost of living in Vancouver and provide the basic needs that humans require to flourish and recover, not just survive.

On the pragmatic side the medical costs of poverty alone are staggering. Just as it costs more to keep someone homeless than it does to build them a home the costs of keeping people in poverty are compounded throughout the provincial purse in other areas. This makes the need to create a poverty reduction plan in our province, the only one without one, all the more salient. So for my fiscally conservative friends, do we deal with the symptoms of poverty in our hospitals and clinics or do we create a targeted strategy to eliminate poverty in Canada and reduce the burden on our health care system? Do we pay up front, or pay with interest later? The Swiss with their guaranteed income might not look so crazy after all when considering the compounded costs of poverty.

Some could argue (some of my friends maybe) that “no one is making someone poor or keeping them in poverty, they made bad choices etc.” and sure we all make some good and bad choices in life, but the social determinants of health and other factors that create poverty traps are powerful forces well beyond the agency of the individual and their decision making power. Just as the privileged position that I benefit from is shaped by powerful institutions and forces that set all kinds of things in motion before I was presented with various choices or opportunities that shaped my current situation. Life is not as simple as individuals simply making good or bad choices. As Margaret Thatcher once famously said “There is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families” but when an individual is living on the street with no family we have an obligation to be his or her family. We become our brother’s keeper. I would argue that this is society, and our identities as members of society (i.e. citizens) has become increasingly blurred by a creeping identity of ourselves as consumers – Stephen Harper’s recent Throne Speech crystallizes this identity crisis by placing focus on the national needs of us as consumers with our TV channel choices and cell phone plans. To me this is insulting and belittling, as much as I would appreciate being able to choose my own TV channels and access more affordable cell plans.

A healthy society is built through empathy. An unhealthy society is built through a lack of it.

In the end it’s difficult for many of us to place ourselves in a context we know nothing about and relate to others who perplex or even frustrate us. My feeling already is that the more privileged we are the harder we may have to work to cultivate empathy. This idea is supported by recent research in the U.S. and Canada that shows an empathy gap between rich and poor. So as inequality continues to increase perhaps we should be concerned about empathy decreasing in tandem?

Whether you consider the moral reasons for compassion and empathy in an affluent society, the social contract to care for all in our communities or whether you are a fiscal conservative who dislikes wasteful use of taxpayers dollars, we need to consider poverty and privilege in a more nuanced context and realize that we can do better. We need to do better. We are also well served to consider our own position between privilege and poverty in the process and cultivate empathy.

In the end, raising welfare rates enough to provide basic nutritional needs shouldn’t be a hard sell no matter how you package it. Really, it shouldn’t.



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