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July 22, 2011

Poverty Deserved?

By Kaylie Tiessen


Two months ago, I began working as a poverty program researcher at MCCO. At the time, I thought I knew a lot about poverty – I certainly knew all of the stereotypes that we, as a society, have for people living in poverty—I have learned, though, that I don’t know squat.


One of the most important lessons for me so far is that poverty is about a lot more than just money.


Technically speaking, I live in poverty.
I am a student, I work as an intern and I spent the past number of years volunteering. It used to be difficult for me to empathize with people living on social assistance and/or living in poverty—if I can make it, why can’t they? This internship has given me the opportunity to think critically about this question. I’ve come to realize that the only reason I can make it is because of the amazing community that I am a part of.


I am able to work as an intern this summer because I have an aunt and uncle with a spare bedroom that I can live in. I can go to school 2,000kms away because I have parents who can help me to move, to travel back and forth for Christmas and for important family events, and can spot me money now and then when I need it.


I have family friends who own their own businesses, which means that if I ever need a job, I’m likely to find something. Granted, sometimes that means picking tomatoes in hot and humid greenhouses, but it’s a job, right? Even the ability to take a lower paying summer internship is the result of my community. Without the extra support I would never be able to afford this opportunity—an opportunity which has the potential to open up many doors for my future.


And, if I hadn’t been able to find a summer job, I know I would not have been homeless—I can always move in with my parents if I need to.


Many people living in poverty do not have these supports (and if you are living on social assistance you must report any gifts you receive—like a bed to sleep in— at which time the equivalent value may be taken off your cheque). If you are truly living in poverty, not only do you lack money, but you will also lack the basic community and family supports that many of us take for granted every day. When I really think about it, if the support I receive from my family and friends, both monetary and emotional, were taken away, I would not be able to live as I do. Not only would I miss out on the cheap rent and the plane tickets home, but I would not have had the opportunity to spend my time volunteering for three years or the network of people to find short term work when I had time off. In addition to all of this, I might not have had the role models that I do—people in my life who have taught me how to interact with others so that I can have stable relationships with roommates, professors and supervisors.


Wow—I am much more fortunate than I thought!


A second lesson I have learned is that no one deserves to live in poverty. There seems to be a general premise in our society that people get what they deserve. When someone gets a good job or a great promotion we say “congratulations, you deserve it!” When our friends talk about taking a day to relax and maybe get a pedicure we say “go for it, you deserve it!” But what does that mean for the people who didn’t get the promotion or don’t have the luxury of taking time off – does telling the wealthy and privileged that they deserve something mean that those who are not wealthy and privileged don’t deserve the same? Is the fact that someone doesn’t have a decent place to sleep or enough food to eat, the result of some mistake they made in the past? A mistake which they are now paying for in the present.


Collectively, we seem to believe that if one works hard enough they will be successful. This then implies that, if you are not successful, you are not a hard worker, are lazy and so, deserve to be poor. This belief leaves our conscience clear. It leaves us free to put low wage workers, people on social assistance and others living in poverty in a box labelled ‘lazy’ and leave them there to stay—without so much as a thought as to what circumstances landed them there in the first place. What we forget (or ignore) is that any one of us could end up living in poverty; our business could fail, our job could be cut, our ex-husband could stop paying alimony. Where would we be then? If we’re lucky we’ll end up on a futon in our Aunt’s basement. But what happens if we’re not so lucky?

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