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Defining poverty

Viewpoints: A personal story of one woman’s experience with poverty in Canada

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By Ilanna Sharon Mandel

Poverty in Canada is a misunderstood experience for millions of Canadians. Six years ago, StatsCan estimated that 10 per cent of Canadians live in poverty. That translates into more than 3 million Canadians struggling to make ends meet.

The sad reality is that poverty wears many faces; a high number of those Canadians struggling under the poverty line are women and children. Many are people with disabilities. I know. I’m one of them. I struggle not because I don’t work; I do. I work as hard as my body allows me to. All too often people look at the poor and their own misconceptions kick in.

To be poor isn’t necessarily to stand in the street with a tin cup and beg for money. Yes, far too many people are reduced to that way of survival. Many of my fellow struggling Canadians fall on hard times for reasons most people either don’t know about or don’t care about, or simply don’t understand.

How I got here
In my own situation, it was thousands of dollars spent on physiotherapy hoping to get well again with a complicated history of back injuries and congenital issues, coupled with a declining ability to work outside the home.

So, I spent my life savings on working with physiotherapists, homeopaths, chiropractors, acupuncturists, and massage therapists. It took years before one physiotherapist would finally admit that there would never be a long-term solution, and I would always require physiotherapy.

Otherwise, my body would keep regressing into a state of non-functionality.

Of course, people ask: “What about surgery?” Surgeons will only take people who absolutely can’t function, or for whom the situation is dire. My doctor tried, and the surgeon turned me down.

Pursuing work
As a writer and instructional designer, I take work when I can get it. I try hard. I put in bids for contracts, write requests for proposals, and use every website and network I can think of to procure regular work. But, the same is true for millions of writers around the globe.

Take one online work site for example. It’s a good site, but there are people on the site willing to take work at $5 per hour.

It becomes hard to make a case for more expensive work when one is faced with people willing to work for almost nothing, and contractors who want to pay $5 for a week’s worth of work. And, yes, that happens too.

How does all this fit into the picture? The truth is, poverty isn’t just about homelessness. Poverty is not being able to afford your medications, or choosing between medication and food.

What is poverty?
Poverty is when you can’t pay your Hydro bill and you have to borrow money to keep your electricity on.

Poverty is when you sit at home alone night after night, day after day, and not go anywhere or do very much, because you can’t afford the transit tickets that week, or your pain makes it impossible to sit for very long in any case.

Poverty is about those nights when you sit and worry about the future, knowing that maybe there is no way out of the cycle of poverty, and you know because you’ve tried everything you can think of.

Poverty is also when a landlord evicts you (not so far for me) and you have no place to go. Poverty is when you want to reach out to people for support, but feel the humiliation of your situation.

If I could say one thing to my fellow Canadians it would be this: don’t judge the people you know who are poor. Try to understand their situation. Talk to them. Learn what it’s like to stand in line at the food bank, or cry yourself to sleep in fear for your future.

Ending the cycle
Become an advocate to eradicate poverty.

This is what we must do. Is a monthly basic income the answer? Truthfully, I don’t know, although for me, it would be like manna from heaven.

Those of us who are poor must advocate for ourselves, and we must educate our fellow Canadians. We need to reach out and explain it’s no shame to be poor. Although as Tevye the Milkman said: “It’s no great honour either.”

Take the time to understand poverty and see the faces behind the experience. We are your fellow Canadians. We live here too, and we also want to have all the opportunities life can offer.

Don’t leave us behind. Don’t judge us. If anything, be kind and compassionate. A kind word, a hug, a smile, a gentle touch can mean a lot to someone when they’re having a particularly bad day.

Please know, we didn’t choose to be poor, and we hope one day we’ll break free.

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