The Face of Poverty

Submitted by dcook on March 12, 2012 - 8:24am

What is the face of poverty? There are no faces of poverty, only masks. Some of the masks are put on by people living in poverty: the masks of normalcy; the ones that are used to say I’m ok and that attempt to preserve our human dignity.

 Other masks are imposed, the ones that others put on the faces of those in poverty; masks like “lazy”, “uneducated”, or “immigrant”. But behind the competing masks, if we ripped them both away, we still would not find the face of poverty, but rather a mosaic of faces. And the faces would be us.

 As a group, the “poor” do not exist. If we have 130,000 people living in poverty in Calgary, we have in fact 130,000 different poverties. Here are some of the poverties I have known.

 One of those poverties is my daughter’s friend at school whose family came as refugees. Both parents work full-time in lower wage jobs, which means there is little time for family, and scarce money for extras at school or outside. She gets ready for school alone. After school she goes home and waits for her parents alone. She has never been to the mountains.

 One of those poverties is the mom we got to know in the hospital after the birth of our daughter. Her son was born extremely prematurely and spent several months in intensive care. She works night shift, her husband days, and between the two manage to care for four other children in a small house in one of the farthest suburbs, purchased with the help of family. Between work, family and transit distance to the hospital, she spent little time with her newborn son.

 One of those poverties is the person I met downtown on the street one day who asked me for change. I gave her some, no questions asked. In return she insisted I take a granola bar from her. I did so because it provided to her a measure of dignity. I keep it in my desk to remind me.

 And one of the poverties I have known is my own. So let me take off my own mask just for a moment. I grew up in an old farmhouse in southern Ontario in a family of four. Like most people, we didn’t know we were poor, it was just the way it was, and no label would have made it any better. Or worse.

 We didn’t start out that way. My father had little formal education, but had done well working his way up inside a company in a way you could in that era. But that all changed when he lost his job. Losing the job also meant losing the house, the one his father had built, and moving to the city into one of the rougher neighbourhoods. My father struggled to start a meagre business and my mother worked nights. When the car broke down she took the bus to work and walked home late in the dark.

 It was my grandfather who encouraged my father to move back to the country where it would be safer for us kids and mom, and where we could find some measure of self-sufficiency. This wasn’t an estate lot, but the remnants of a farm whose barn had burned and the land had been sold off. The house was 150 years old and over-run with rats, flies and the smell of wine left by the previous owner who’d fuelled his alcoholism with home brew. Dad bought the place cheap.

 The plaster walls were cracked, the wallpaper torn in strips and the windows provided little protection from the cold. Much of the heat was from the woodstove, and winter nights were brutal with snowdrifts forming on the inside of the sills in my room. We slept warm under a thick layer of quilts, and usually dressed under the sheets in the morning before running downstairs to warm up by the stove. We never had a bathroom sink, and I was 17 before I had the experience of using a shower. Yet, life was normal. It was just the way it was.

 The way it was, was work. To feed the family we had a large garden and grew and preserved most of our own fruits and vegetables. We bought some animals and raised goats for milk, pigs for meat and chickens for meat and eggs. Free time was work time, apart from homework and church. There was no time for hockey or anything else like it, and certainly not the money.

 After a series of short term jobs, dad eventually found permanent work, but never earned enough to lift us much. Somehow we got by, but always on the edge. When the pump, or the furnace, or the car or the septic system broke down, it was more to the pile of debt. So, his full-time week job in the city began to be augmented by part-time work on a neighbour’s farm during the weekend; sometimes one day on the weekend and sometimes both. So, we never saw a lot of dad, and a lot of the work on our “farm” was shared between the rest of us.

 We all became stalwart and it bred a kind of defiance in the face of the subtle exclusions we encountered daily. We became, in a perverse way, proud of the second-hand clothes and the old broken house. We planted trees. It had its benefits, but also its costs. Costs of health, of time not spent together, talents not explored or developed, isolation, self-esteem and the constant stress and fear of want. It takes its toll on a childhood, on a family, on a marriage. Yet, that is my family. That is my childhood. That is both the story and the dignity I carry.

 But for the grace of cheap tuition, farm work and factories, an education would have been unlikely for me, and many opportunities would have remained closed. Even so, education alone doesn’t overcome the deficits of years of exclusion. For those who have not walked that path, it’s hard to understand that it takes much more than a degree and a paycheque to confidently take your place in a culture that esteems everything you’ve been defined by lacking.

 Some may manage that transition well; some not so well. And some will simply not make the attempt. And who am I, in the end, to judge? I live in a comfortable house now, and put on a suit for work. My daughter’s well cared for. If people ask, I just tell them I grew up in the country.  But I carry with me still the memory of cold doorways, factories and guard dogs and the kindness of a co-worker who once slipped me a $20 bill having astutely noticed that I never brought a lunch. Such are the scars, and such is the healing, and these are the masks we wear.