In the strip mall where I work, there are two men who live in the absolute depths of poverty. One has a bicycle with two buggies attached in a train behind it that carry his entire livelihood. The other is missing a leg, and sits and naps in his wheelchair outside of the grocery store with a ball cap sitting in front of him, waiting for spare change. These two men are outside every day, and as such they are occasionally brought up in the conversations between my coworkers. What I have learned from these conversations is that the man with the buggies deserves any kind of help he can get. He has a mental condition that prevents him from working, so he is incapable of sustaining himself independently. The other has full mental capabilities, and has the audacity to impinge on people’s day by speaking to them as they walk past, regardless of how hard they are trying to ignore him. Despite his potential to hold down a job, the man bound in a wheelchair would rather loiter around a mall and harass the working class as they attempt to go about their day. Because of his transgressions, the man who is missing a leg is considered less deserving of help than the man with the buggies.

There are many images people have in their mind when they think about those who live in poverty. The one that is most prominent is that of the lazy man leeching off the system. He spends his money on alcohol and drugs, and prefers to bum cigarettes off passers-by rather than shell out the money himself. Those we see panhandling on the streets often make more than enough in handouts and welfare that they can afford homes, nice homes even, and live rather comfortably. With these listless degenerates representing the impoverished, why should we bother helping them at all? It is difficult to generate compassion after hearing a story about someone witnessing a donated sandwich being thrown in the garbage by a beggar on the street.

These are the stories that have been fed to us for hundreds of years. They get into our subconscious and affect the way we think and feel about those living in poverty, and our reality becomes warped to fit them. Unfortunately, they are only stories, and ignoring the problems of those who live in poverty is not as easy when we are faced with the reality of the situation. Our archetypal mendicant, buying booze and bumming cigarettes, is not as prevalent as our stories make him out to be. For example, the reality is that our typical man in poverty is actually a woman.

Of those who receive Social Assistance, only 15% are “employable” men. Further myths include that those in poverty do not work or are lazy. This is despite the 26% of those living in poverty who are employed full-time, the 34% who work part-time, and the 10% who are unable to work. Further statistics show that 38% of those below the poverty line are children, 27% are disabled, and 16% are single mothers.

Our stories would also try to convince us that all of these people are leeching off the government and contributing nothing. Unfortunately again, the reality is that four billion dollars were paid in taxes by those considered to be low-income in 2004; 70% of which was paid in commodity taxes. This is despite welfare rates being much lower than the Low-Income Cut Off (LICO), which further disproves that those in poverty can live sustainably. Canada is thought to be generous with its less fortunate, but the percentage of GDP dedicated to social programs was only 18% in 2002. This is comparable to 29% in France, 27% in Germany, and 40% in Sweden.

What about those who swindle this low-paying, under-funded system? It seems that the estimate for welfare fraud in Canada is responsible for 3% of the total welfare budget, compared to 20% with regard to income tax fraud. On top of this, most of this fraud comes down to administrative errors.

If the reality is in such stark contrast to the public perception, how did the public perception come about? Part of the reason can be explained by looking at the history of poverty and social welfare. In 1834, England implemented the Poor Laws which banned outdoor relief (panhandling) for the able-bodied, and put them to work in poorhouses where they slaved away at menial labour for very little compensation. The view at the time was that poverty was a moral failing, and those who succumbed to it were afflicted by sloth or swayed by worldly temptation. The Protestant Work Ethic was a newly developed idea, and held that if an individual cannot provide for themselves, they must be afflicted by some sort of deficiency. This led to the notions of the deserving and undeserving poor; the able-bodied poor were considered to be lazy, and those completely unable to work were considered to be defective, and therefore worthy of charity.

The belief that those in poverty have a moral failing, or whether or not they deserve help, carries on to this day. These ideas contribute to the socially constructed image of the degenerate slacker who makes up the population of the poorest demographic. This image is not just responsible for the somewhat hard-hearted conversations in a workplace, but government policies are also shaped by the tone of the discourse that centres on poverty. For example, the invasive scrutiny one must endure in order to receive benefits implies that one must be considered “worthy” to gain assistance. Even those who live in the reality of poverty are affected by its myths. To avoid being classified as shiftless deviants, those in poverty will sometimes get off at an alternate bus stop to evade being seen going into their social housing complex. They will condemn harder than anyone the illicit drug and alcohol abuse of others in poverty, as they believe they are further stigmatized through mere association.

The hard facts of those living on Social Assistance paint a bleak picture. The dollar value of a welfare cheque in Saskatchewan as of 2003 had not changed from 1980, resting uncomfortably at $195 a month. Those on welfare are allotted $120 for food, $30 for clothes, $30 for household replacements, and $15 for personal needs. Single parents are given a slightly higher rate of $230 a month. There is a rental allowance as well, the lowest of which being $210 a month for a single, employable person, and the greatest being $500 a month for a family with six children or more.

Since cold numbers do not always properly convey the full truth any situation, let us examine some examples of what living off these kinds of earnings looks like. Struggles arise when one is not given any sort of travel assistance, so getting to the hospital, the grocery store, or a job interview means either walking, or paying for a cab, resulting in not having enough money for something else. Since rent is typically higher than the given allotment, money for food often goes to help pay for shelter. There is also the mother who had to face the decision of whether or not to place her sick child into foster care where he would at least be able to eat healthy meals. In a culture that places such importance on the image of the stable family, we would rather remove a child from their parent than see to it that the parent can raise that child properly.

Even when trying to get help the stories depict a grim reality. Anonymity is paramount when trying to obtain donated food, such as from a food bank, as the humiliation of scrutiny further degrades those seeking simple sustenance. Certain food banks will be avoided due to their intrusive inspections, and local churches will be completely excluded due to the demeaning nature of being demoted from a human being to a charity case among one’s social circle.

So why not simply get off of welfare and get a job? It seems that over time the amount of part-time, low paying jobs has increased dramatically. What started out as 3.8% of all employment in 1953, part-time employment increased to 18.5% as of 1999.

Part of the reasoning for this dramatic shift from full-time to part-time is the restructuring of the global economy. As more and more corporations become multi-national, policy is enacted to increase the profitability of those companies, such as tax reductions and the resulting decrease in social spending. The theory is that if big businesses are succeeding, this will create an upward shift in the economy, and will create jobs and a better market. However, even an increase in jobs does not necessarily mean an increase in financially sustainable living, as the jobs are trending towards being more and more part-time. This increases the profitability of the businesses, but decreases the livelihood of those in the bottom quintile. This in turn creates further dependence on Social Assistance programs which now have substantially less funding.

When the government investigates potential recipients of Social Assistance, it pursues a check of their means rather than their needs. The focus of the investigation falls on the amount of income one receives; be it a gift from a family member, or a loan to further one’s education. When means are the litmus test for help, the needs of the individual often become overlooked.

There are two types of needs: thick needs, and thin needs. Thin needs are the essential food, water, and livelihood that allow human beings to function at their basic level. Thick needs are multifaceted and culturally specific; thick needs are the fulfillment that one seeks in life. They are being able to participate in the culture to which one belongs; such as placing one’s child into little league, or taking part in a weekend trip with one’s friends. What might seem superficial to some means being included in society to others, and to ignore these needs in others is to treat them as second class citizens.

There is a powerlessness that comes from living in poverty where all decisions are difficult ones. There is the choice to stay in an abusive relationship and provide financially for one’s child, or leave the relationship and live in peace but without any funds to raise that child. One can either live in subsidized housing with the thefts, vandalism, drug users, and the general disrepair, or one can rent an apartment and not be able to afford food. In an oppressive or hostile work environment, there is choosing to stay or choosing to wait without money for the few weeks that it takes for Employment Insurance, a program meant to help those who enter unemployment by providing temporary financial aid, to kick in. It seems that occasionally the programs meant to help an individual can even contribute to their powerlessness.

Without power, dependence becomes crucial. When one depends on another, it is imperative that provisions are adequate so the dependent is not hung out to dry. There is one demographic that has become synonymous with dependence, and with that association has become the primary recipient of Social Assistance.

The traditional idea of The Woman is one who stays at home to maintain the household while her husband provides for the family’s financial stability. If there is no husband, the woman becomes helpless. While this is currently seen as an out-dated, misogynistic idea, its powerful influence remains with us today. When contemporary society carries the lingering elements of this image, and its ideals revolve around the individual taking care of him or herself, it is not surprising when 41% of unattached women under the age of 65 live in poverty compared to 34.3% of unattached men.

One factor for these disheartening numbers is the increase of part-time and low-wage employment. In 2004, women held 64% of the jobs paying minimum wage and 70% of all part-time employment. These egregious statistics are further compounded by the highly publicized yet still shocking fact that women earn 71% of the income that men do, even with comparable participation in the workforce.

The poverty of women is not caused solely by their entrapment in the low-wages industry, as the most prevalent reason for men in poverty is also low wages. Women also suffer poverty through the expectation for them to care for children or the elderly and through divorce. In 1998, 61.4% of single mothers with children under the age of 18 were living in poverty.

As finding a job is the perceived escape from destitution, a single mother must do her best to balance her life dedicated to her child with efforts towards entering the workforce. However, the amount of disincentives for a single mother to gain employment is monumental. As the prospects for work are statistically going to be limited to low-paying, part-time work, even if she were able to find a job, most of her earnings would go to pay for a babysitter, as there are no subsidies for child care in Canada. Even the hiring process works against single mothers, as the choice between a woman without children and a single parent would lead a potential employer to choose the woman without children in almost every instance.

There are token programs to help single mothers, such as the National Child Benefit which provides, based on an income test, a tax credit to families with children. While these programs offer some benefits, it is often not enough, and those women who remain in poverty become more easily swept under the rug, as officials can point to these programs and say that if someone cannot survive even with these programs in place, then it must be the failing of the individual rather than of the system, further perpetuating the socially constructed image of the impoverished deviant. Of course, when funds received from the National Child Benefit are clawed back from the Social Assistance cheque, the token programs are shown to be just as ineffective at escaping poverty as entering the labour market.

The biggest problem with forcing women into a financially unfair workforce is that it ignores the work that these mothers perform, without vacations or recognition, on a daily basis. Margaret Wente, a columnist at the Globe & Mail, describes the multiple careers that her own mother engages in: ““[she] is a one-woman voluntary social service agency-a combination of Wheel-Trans, Meals-on-Wheels, social worker, community advocate, grief counsellor and financial advisor all rolled up into one.” The scrutiny that those in poverty live with to maintain their much-needed welfare suggests that without a watchful eye, they would fall into inactivity and sloth. However, the reality is that those in poverty work harder to provide for their loved ones more than anyone else, and to classify those living in poverty as lazy goes well beyond cognitive dissonance and borders on delusional.

The single mother is the paragon of dependency. The entire family unit depends on her to support them, and she depends on the government to support her. However, the prevailing view is that dependency is a negative issue. If one is not able to support themselves, they are dependent and should strive towards autonomy. This criticism of dependence comes from the patriarchal view of dependency as a feminine, and therefore weaker, position to be in. This, however, is a faulty assumption as the traditional husband is just as dependent on his wife to take care of the family. This interdependence in the family is a micro-version of how societies work even at a macro level. There is an interdependency in the global market, when one country relies on the stability of another in order to make their own financial dealings. There is an interdependency even between the government and these single mothers, as these mothers are tasked with raising future generations of tax payers.

There is a pervasive hypocrisy in the discussion on dependence: the dependency on welfare is condemned, but the dependency on a husband for financial support is accepted as normal or even celebrated. This is shown by the ‘Spouse-in-the-House’ rule that states that if a woman might have a financial supporter in a partner, her benefits would be cut. This incongruency shows that dependency in itself is not the issue, but is merely the scapegoat used to ignore the real problems. If dependency was encouraged, society would be able to focus more on the necessary care required for the upbringing of children, rather than on whether or not a mother needs to be taken off Social Assistance. It would foster a connectedness through society that the emphasis on independence and individualism denies.

It is very easy to dismiss the problems of the poor as a personal failing. It is simple to claim one individual as more deserving of help than another. In the ideological realm of right-wing politics where the power of the individual is celebrated, it makes sense to espouse the views of Newt Gingrich who says that “those who don’t work, don’t eat.” There is a certain clarity in being able to embrace our traditional fabrications, and then dismiss the hardships of others as either trivial or deserved. We can come up with myths and stories that justify our dismissals, and use them to further degrade those whose lives are already tragic enough. But even if all those stories were true, we have to remember the reason that we are trying to help the disenfranchised in the first place. Certainly there are instances of drug users, welfare cheats, and other degenerates who abuse the system, however rare they might actually be, but are they truly less deserving of help? Is “contributing to society” a necessary prerequisite to receiving aid? Governments are expected to administer a just society, and justice is not a transaction. We need a society where dependency is not scorned. We need a society that empowers our women. We need a society that takes care of its people without asking for anything in return, because without these things, the moral failings do not belong to those who live in poverty, they belong to us.