I came from working poor parents. My father died when I was 14 years old. After that, we moved from my hometown to Hamilton to be closer to my mom’s sister and my older siblings. I was a lonely, hurt young teenager. I fell in love with my childhood sweetheart when I was 16. I became pregnant, left school after grade 10 and got married. My daughter was born in 1971. My husband and I separated when my daughter was 9 months old. We were too young to make it work. I was 17 years old with a new baby and on my own.
I ended up on social assistance (then called welfare/mothers’ allowance, now called Ontario Works). It was 1971. I wanted to work. The first job was a door to door sales job, but I was terrible at it – I was so very shy and I didn’t know much about selling. The second job was as an A & W car hop, but I didn’t want to go out and serve the cars! I was too PAINFULLY shy and insecure.
Child care expenses as well as finding someone that you trust with your child (not to mention the extra challenge of getting the child to and from daycare) is a significant hurdle to cross when you don’t have a vehicle. I was very lucky that my mother was able to baby-sit for me while I did my best to work. Without this asset in my life, I may have failed to move forward in my life.
When my daughter was one year old, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to become a ‘keypunch operator’ (now called ‘data entry operator’). I loved typing when I was in high school and it was a perfect job for a shy young woman because you worked alone. But the course cost $300.00! My mother didn’t have that kind of money. I went to see my worker at the welfare office. I was told that they wouldn’t cover the cost of my training! I was so-o-o angry! Imagine – for only $300.00 I would be able to find a keypunching job (they were plentiful back then) and be off the ‘system’ which would save the system a whole lot more than $300.00!
Again, I was fortunate. My mother swallowed her pride and asked my oldest brother for the $300.00 so that I could take the keypunch course. She had faith in me even though I was a young, scared young mom. My brother gave her the money so I would have a chance.
I took the course, I moved in with my older sister in Toronto where jobs were plentiful, I started working and my mother continued to baby-sit for me.
One of the comments I hear from people who had hard times when they were younger and made it through is: “I made it – why can’t they?” (‘they’ being people who live on low incomes and in poverty). I want to ask them: what did it take for you to overcome poverty? No one makes it completely alone in this life.
I was lucky. Not everyone has the assets I had: a mother who gave up her life after her husband died to look after her daughter’s child, a brother with enough generosity and income to give up $300 to give his young sister a chance, an older sister who helped her younger sister discover an appropriate career path, get a job and housing.
This is why we need such resources as: affordable housing and education, subsidized quality childcare, adequate social assistance, access to healthy, affordable food, choices in job training, community supports, etc. We need supportive policies and processes that provide a path forward for people in a way that removes barriers that meet unique needs and challenges of each individual.
Some of you might say that this story was a long time ago and surely things have changed since then. You’re right – things have changed. But it’s also true that things haven’t changed. Societal attitudes towards people living in poverty, social policies and systems that work against people’s movement out of poverty still exist today. Many individuals, agencies, organizations, groups (such as ALIV(e) ) and networks continue to encourage, advocate and request changes to the policies and systems that make it almost impossible to move out of poverty. But I think the root of all root causes of poverty is the stigma – societal attitudes towards people living in poverty. These include our values. If people voted from values of inclusion, equity for all, living wages, etc., I think government policies would do a better job of reflecting these values, don’t you?
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