Wednesday, September 14, 2005

What Poverty Is. What Poverty Is Not.

Our local paper on Saturday featured (in numerals 2 1/2 inches high) the amazing fact that 47,450 residents of this region of Ontario are living in poverty.

Today's paper contains a letter to the editor saying that "the low-income cut-off survey is a measure of the relative inequality of incomes" and "It does not measure absolute poverty--defined as the inability to purchase basic needs."

Under the letter is a response from the editor:
"Although Statistics Canada does not define poverty, [this paper] has chosen to do so for its series, using the low income cut-off survey as its measure, and fully aware of statistician objections. We contend, for example, that a family of three living on less than $27,000 [Canadian] a year in this region is, in fact, poor, and our series will illustration the real struggles such families face."

(For a family of four, the cut-off is $32,546. Family of three, $26,805. Single parent, one child, $17,515.)

OK, low-income earners: you have it from the editors of the newspaper. They obviously know better than Statistics Canada, and they say if you hit the low-income mark, you're poor. Isn't that nice to know?

It seems to me that they're missing a basic fact about poverty, and that is that it can have very little to do with actual income. Many of us have either been there or known people who have grown up in real poverty (at least in North American terms), and who are still struggling with some of the problems that seem to get bundled together when you're truly caught in poverty: having trouble just putting the next meal on the table or finding a safe and clean place to live; higher-than-average medical problems and dental problems because of poor nutrition and lack of care, educational problems for all kinds of reasons, higher rates of illiteracy, abuse, and single parenthood; more risk of trouble with the law, more problems with things like alcohol, mental health issues such as depression: maybe all of these at one time. It means living paycheque to paycheque (or government cheque to government cheque), usually with limited other resources behind you in case of emergency, and often in debt as well. Sometimes this continues on for generations in one family, making it harder and harder to break free. That's what I think of as poverty in 2005 (never mind the kind of worse poverty that much of the rest of the world lives in, or even the kind of doing-without that our grandparents faced during depressions and wars. How many of us could handle coming to a new country and living in a sod house on the prairie?).

On the other hand, and this is why I'm posting about this, many of us homeschoolers live close to that "low-income" cut-off point, and we don't consider ourselves particularly poor. But many of us also have good educations behind us (even if we were public-schooled (grin)), emotional support from extended families, even financial resources (such as equity in a house, or money that we saved when our family had two incomes) that aren't reflected in how much we were supposed to have earned last year. We tend to be creative and resourceful when it comes to finding ways to stretch small incomes; we have computers; our children aren't (for the most part, that I can see) examples of poverty-related health issues such as very poor dental health or high incidence of obesity. Does that fact that many of us drive older cars or that we pass clothes around mean we're suffering? Emphatically not.

And the point is, that our income can be exactly the same as that of someone who feels they're really struggling, maybe because of bad circumstances they got into or maybe because they were raised in poverty themselves and still can't get over some of the related problems (such as being in chronic poor health and therefore unable to work). Sometimes the problem is a lack of education, too: not knowing how to cook much more than boxed macaroni and cheese, not knowing that you shouldn't put your babies to bed with bottles of juice (it rots their teeth, and I've seen the results), not understanding how harmful cigarette smoke can be to little ones (or how dangerous lighters are when left around), not being able to plan ahead enough to put together any kind of emergency backup supplies. I think of a young woman I met at the corner store once who was toting a little one; I asked her if she knew about the mom-and-tot play programs and drop-ins that our community centre offered (we were specially funded to be able to offer help to needy families). She just looked at me without much interest and said, "He'd rather play in the toilet." Maybe she was joking? I've never been sure. But I know I've never felt that far away from help when I've needed it. For others, that's not the case.

How should the newspaper define poverty then? Do you feel you're poor if you're making around what they say is the "low income cut-off?" Are you poor if (like the "struggling" mother in one of the newspaper stories, you HAVE TO buy the $1.84 pencil sharpener instead of the $4.82 one)?
Does poverty depend more on how you spend the money than how much you're bringing in? (We know people with large incomes who blow much of it on non-essentials, we also know people with incomes smaller than ours who spend way more than we do on things like nights out with friends.)

Poverty to me is no pencil sharpener at all, and often no parent able or willing to even take you back-to-school shopping. That's how it was for some kids I knew growing up, and I'm sure that's how it still is for children who are truly experiencing poverty.

How do you define it?


coffeemamma said...

Hubby and I often have a good chuckle when we read those "look at the number of poor" articles. According to the definitions they usually use, we have *always* lived in poverty. The government includes our four kids in their 'children living in poverty' statistics, which would also make us laugh if it weren't so harmful in the long-term. To use taxpayer's money to teach children like mine that they are entitled to more than they have is on just this side of sick. The old 'entitlement' attitude rears it's ugly head again (like the poor woman who had to buy the cheap pencil sharpener).

We have a three-bedroom home (small), a min-van (old), a computer(old), a TV (small),a DVD player (a gift), a VCR (old), a washer and dryer (old), and the list goes on...

Our children participate in sports and other activities (sometimes the money to pay for these comes from Christmas/ birthday presents), they have too many toys, they all have clothes (usually hand-me-downs or thrift store), they have all the books they want (purchased 2nd hand or from the library), and again, the list goes on...

We eat healthy, well-balanced and nutritious meals three times a day, and can even splurge occasionally on a treat (but we rarely eat out). We cook from scratch, we take advantage of sales, buy store brands, and fruit/ vegetables in season, and again, the list goes on...

I challenge anyone to point out where my kids are suffering due to living in such "poverty".

I *have* been really poor. I have had to choose between washing the baby's diapers and eating. I have had to wear winter boots with holes, and been unable to buy toothpaste. *That* is poverty, and without support, living that way *can* be unbearable.

I had the strong support of family, a local drop-in for moms and tots, and a community of other moms in my situation who shared babysitting, toys, and clothes. I never did have to take free snowsuits, go to the foodbank, or the Salvation Army, but only because of my fabulous family and their generous spirits.

To tell me that the way we live now is "poor" is not only ridiculous, it's downright insulting.

Mama Squirrel said...

I know, coffeemamma: you want to laugh and get mad at the same time.

coffeemamma said...

Wow, I do sound a bit bitter, don't I? ;-)

I had just had a similar conversation with a neighbour the day before, and I guess I was still stewing over it.

But yes, laugh and get mad at the same time- it's just like that.

Mike B) said...

Poverty is the inability to get all you need, including free-time. Conspicuous consumption is the inability to get all you want and REALLY believing that the person who dies with the most toys, wins.

Headmistress, zookeeper said...

We've also shown up under the poverty level, and have laughed at how well we were doing while being so poverty stricken.
We read articles about the poor, and are continously amazed at some of the things people will say in print- during our presidential elections a local paper interviewed a mother who claimed to be poor, and as part of her sob story about how hard it was to live in such poverty, she complained about not being able to take her two daughters somewhere like Disneyland. Well. Good. Grief.

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