I Have Never Been Poor…

This brief post is about poverty. In a way I feel that, in trying to make a few observations, I am appropriating an aspect of poverty’s culture that I have no right to comment on. Although, and I have never really thought all that much about my first couple of years in terms of poverty, In early ’46, my parents bought a little fish boat and set to sea. Neither had any ocean fishing experience. At the appointed time, I joined the crew. My first year was spent primarily in a basinet atop the motor. We may well have been not all that flush. Luckily, both of my parents were sharp with money, fiscally prudent, thrifty. Somehow, they managed to buy a partially completed house in the south end of Nanaimo.

We were on our way up a few rungs on the ladder.

That aside, I have been thinking quite a bit about poverty for the past few weeks as I read a powerful memoir, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, by a painfully honest writer, Linda Tirado

I was thinking about Tirado’s book as I read Paul Willcock’s recent Tyee article, Why Do We Cruelly Lock Poor People Out in the Rain?, about a welfare office in Abbotsford and the decision to have applicants etc. stand in a line outside.

In the chapter, We Do Not Have Babies For Welfare Money, Tirado goes on a tear:

“I have the solution to hungry children in America. Nobody wants to do it, but here goes: Fucking feed people. Cancel the programs where we pay farmers not to farm, and grow food. Buy it from them and use it in schools. Create real jobs…Stop calling it welfare and start calling it something else that describes what it is: a subsidy like any other so that the people actually moving this huge wheel of capitalism can live decent, maybe basic but still pleasant lives. Hunger: solved.”

Hers is an American rant of course but it gets to the nub of poverty in so many places. One of the principal ones, anyways: hunger.

Back to Willcocks and the Abbotsford Welfare office. When I started working in Child Welfare, back in 1978, Income Assistance (Welfare) and Child Welfare, both provincial functions, were under one roof. The offices had heft. Certainly, where I worked, in the bowels of Burnaby BC, there was a sizable congregation of workers. Shortly after I started, we were divided into three branch offices. Even with that, we had a dozen workers and support staff manning (personing?) the building.

There were, over the years, a few tense moments with angry clients demonstrating their unhappiness with the service they were receiving but, all in all, I never felt unsafe.

The arguments being offered in Abbotsford, and as I understand, in other jurisdictions, for forcing folks to huddle outside in all kinds of weather to wait for service are, as articulated by Pastor Jesse Wegenast, harm reduction coordinator with the 5 and 2 Ministries, and quoted in the Abbotsford News,

“first, to encourage people to access services online, and second, based on a decision from the occupational health and safety committee at the branch who wanted to limit the number of people in the waiting room at any given time.”

How specious is the first one is anybody’s guess. Compelling people to stand in line so that they will go on-line is downright Orwellian. It is also, likely, not all that effective, especially if some of the folks obliged to line up don’t have easily available internet access.

My few months as a Financial Assistance Worker in a welfare office in late 1983 demonstrated to me how personal were the needs of many people seeking financial support. On the other hand, as an option, online can be efficient…when it works.

The second rational, a decision of the Occupational Health and Safety Committee, on the surface, seems to have some merit. It is hard to argue against providing a safe workplace. The world can be an unsafe place. Schools have suffered horrendous attacks. Churches. Temples. Movie Houses.

Income Assistance offices in British Columbia have changed considerably in the past twenty years. In my final work years, a few under the NDP government of the day, these officers were taking on a harsher hue. Staff security and the resulting isolation/criminalization of clients was taking hold. This was partially occurring under the NDP’s, Moe Sihota, who, for a time, had the misfortune to be the Minister of the somewhat inaccurately monikered, Ministry of Social Development and Economic Security.

Willcock’s article looks at attitudes about poor and a range of related issues. He also notes that the CBC recently mentioned that ministry staff deal with clients from behind cubicles that have “walls of glass and steel doors.”

The message is clear. The poor are dangerous.

Many services are protected by barriers these days. Just visit a police station. But I am getting off track. The issue is having people standing in lines outside regardless of the weather.

That needs to stop.


welfare lines 1



'I voted for change but I'm still in the same welfare line I was in last year.'

‘I voted for change but I’m still in the same welfare line I was in last year.’




Baltimore Welfare lines




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