To be poor

It’s been awhile since I’ve been poor but once you’ve used a food bank you never really relax (because you know just how easy it is to find yourself there). But after reading this post the other day I can smell the welfare office like it was yesterday. It wasn’t just the smell of stale brown bag lunches and baby spit up either – it was the smell of hopelessness and defeat.

You see, when I was much younger I made a decision that many people thought was the wrong one. I will be forever grateful that I made that decision but it put me – us – on a journey of poverty that took many years to climb out from.

Blogger Linda Tirado’s piece on poverty talks about the hopelessness and absolute exhaustion associated with it, and she’s right. Sitting in that welfare office twenty years ago, with its bullet proof glass, stern clerks and wailing babies, was one of the lowest points of my life. You wait for your name to be called yet cringe when it is – that simple act of someone saying your name out loud in a welfare office always felt aggressive.  Each month I’d become more and more beaten down by being so fucking poor that I couldn’t ever see the way out. Each day was an exercise in emotional survival.

Despair was always stalking me. I didn’t know how I’d get us out of this. Hell, I didn’t even know how I was going to pay the phone bill. But I couldn’t give up, no matter how much I wanted to sometimes.

But I got lucky and did find my way out. I worked my ass off – got sick a few times in the process – and just kept going. I managed to finish a degree just over a decade ago and I cried while waiting to walk across the dais to collect my diploma from the university president. “Well done,” she whispered in my ear.

I didn’t do it alone. Many people – people I will never meet – helped me. The unknown people who made it public policy in BC in the 90s to cover daycare costs while single parents were in school. The people who helped me navigate the financial aid system. The men and women who dropped off Christmas hampers each year. The professors who encouraged me to keep going. My kids who gave me love, and hope.

Read Tirado’s story. It’s important.


4 Comments on “To be poor”

  1. What we need is a Guaranteed Annual Income for all low income Canadians supported by Senaors Hugh Segal & Art Eglinton.Are you listening Justin or Tom?

  2. Tony Roy says:

    I know what you feel like, and enjoyed your post.
    Oh the embarrassing past and oh so so many people who made it possible for that not to be the future!

    • admin says:

      Thanks. If I were embarrassed by my past I wouldn’t have written about it – those of us who’ve been there should speak out. It helps to challenge the stereotypes.

  3. Jenny B says:

    Lisa, this post spoke to me in more ways than I can tell you. As the child of a mother who had to visit food banks and rely on social assistance after my father left us (I was 15 and have 3 younger siblings) with absolutely no support – I can recognize even more so now that I’m a mother, just how difficult that had to be for her – for you – for so many women, and yes, some men.

    I remember my mother being so relieved that we were eligible for the snowsuit fund – I really liked my new jacket! But, I spent a whole day calling around to all the different stores in Ottawa asking if they carried the brand…just in case someone asked me where I got it from. Sure I was embarrassed – but I was 15 – now that I’m all grown up, I cringe at the sight of a small child with no mittens or appropriate outdoor wear…actually brings me to tears. These resources are so important.

    The drive this experience instilled in me is one of the good things that came from being “poor” – as well as the empathy that I can truly feel for others going through the same sort of ordeal.

    We may not have done things in the “order” that society expects us to – but I would argue that we’re all the better for it…empathy, compassion and kindness towards others – it can be taught (as we do with our own children), but it is so much more engrained when you’ve lived it yourself – because really, it would have been much easier to become jaded, give up and perpetuate the cycle of poverty onto our own children. Proud of you.


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