Why people still don't care about poverty, despite the pandemic's hardships

A day comes when you simply have to turn away from a world telling you you don’t deserve to be fed

Frances Koziar · for CBC Opinion 

In the first months of the pandemic, I felt a spark of hope — dangerous, as hope always is when you are an outcast — that the national conversations springing up around money might finally teach people how wrong they are about us. That the stereotypes suggesting those of us living below the poverty line are all crazy, lazy, dirty, violent and untrustworthy (how long do you have?) are just comforting lies told so the financially privileged middle class can continue to believe they have earned what they have, and are right to want more. 

Some people think the pandemic has raised awareness of socio-economic differences: that because of it, rent evictions and food banks and minimum income have become national conversations. And in a way, that is true. 

But people started talking about rent evictions because of the upper-lower and middle-class folks who suddenly had to worry about them, not the people who always have.  

Discussions about supporting food banks focused on the people who needed them because of the pandemic, rather than those who always have. People applauded how the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) stopped so many from living in poverty and wanted to make it permanent through minimum income, but many people on welfare and disability benefits never saw the benefits of the CERB despite making half that amount. Repeatedly, the focus has been on those whose finances have changed with the pandemic, not those who always needed support, and despite all of this supposed awareness, the fact that most people don't know the first thing about chronic poverty, and that folks in poverty are shamed and blamed for our circumstances, has not actually changed. 

Acts of erasure

Instead, if anything, the ignorance is now more pronounced. Using "poverty" to refer to seniors and veterans over the poverty line, or using "poor" to refer to people who are only struggling to afford what they want, rather than being lower class (income 50 per cent below the median), and focusing all the attention on the hardships of those with financial privilege, are acts of erasure, silencing, and discrimination. 

The poverty line is around $17,000 per year. Above that, you have middle-lower class seniors and veterans living off social supports, and then upper-lower class minimum-wage workers. Below the poverty line, the single largest group (over a million Canadians) are people who live on disability, as I do; too disabled to work and thus forced into indefinite poverty because of what I see as the classist and ableist values and ignorance of this culture, its government, and its voters. 

In a sense, many people don't even know we exist. When most people identify as belonging to the subclass below what they actually belong to, like upper-class doctors who call themselves upper-middle class or lower-middle class workers who identify as poor, there is no room left for us at the bottom, and the financial struggles of wealthier people get listened to instead.

Like post-secondary students, for example. Between the benefits that most of them get from their school and parents, including insurance, moving services, food and home visits, transit, presents, and hand-me-downs, many are effectively living an upper-lower class lifestyle. And despite the number of times someone has responded to me when I try to speak of poverty by citing their student loan debt with supposed understanding, student loans don't even need to be paid off if you live in poverty for over a decade, and thus even having them to worry about is a sign of financial privilege.

Students and seniors matter

But it is socially acceptable for students and seniors to be poor. They get discounts because their business matters. Because they matter. 

Sometimes, we in poverty do benefit inadvertently from supports aimed at these wealthier groups. My food bank, for example, gives out more food than they did before the pandemic, and minimum income is becoming a national discussion, which, if passed, would change my life astronomically.

But knowing that it isn't my life they want to change hurts. 

If you have never lived in poverty and yet know the first thing about institutionalized discrimination against those on welfare and disability, or know anything about the bitterness and the depression I am talking about, then you are an exception. And until voices like mine become centred, and the financial struggles of students, minimum-wage workers, and the middle class are moved to the periphery in order to let those truly dealing with oppression speak, that will never change.

But most of us have given up on trying to be heard, and did so long before this pandemic. A day comes when you simply have to turn away from a world telling you you don't deserve to be fed. 

I suppose that makes me stubborn. Spurred by idealistic dreams, and the self-love that has never allowed me to take on the government's shame as my own, here I am, reaching out for the umpteenth time; still, after all these years, believing in love.




Frances Koziar is a young disabled retiree and a social justice advocate living in Kingston, Ont. She is also an author with published work in over 75 different literary magazines and outlets.


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