Special Report: A Welfare Diary

Welfare Diary 26 Years Later, Part 3: Welfare Diary Revisited

This is the original text of A Welfare Diary Revisited, published on Saturday, December 21, 1991 in The Hamilton Spectator.

By Karl Andrus
Published July 31, 2017

A Welfare Diary Revisited: 'One of the problems with being poor is that it's boring' - Special to The Spectator - Saturday December 21, 1991, by Emily Bell [Kate Andrus]

BACK IN June, The Spectator published A Welfare Diary, the first-person account of a Hamilton woman and her children suddenly forced onto the welfare rolls and learning to cope with 'the system.' Emily Bell is that woman's pen name. She was asked to keep writing the diary, with an eye to following up her story in six months. These are her experiences.

JULY

THE RESPONSE to the WELFARE DIARY surprises me. The outpouring of caring is wonderful and I hope the caring will reach other people in my situation.

The article is sent out on the Southam National Wire Services and appears across the country. CBC Radio buys the story and asks me to read it on air. I agree.

The Family Benefits (mother's allowance) worker comes to visit; I am prepared this time. He does tell me the amount I will be receiving, explains the benefits, drug and dental. When I ask about dental coverage, he says the children are covered but I am not, except for emergency treatment.

He jokes that one of the prerequisites for going on Family Benefits is a good set of teeth. He reassures me they will pay for my teeth to be pulled and for dentures when I need them.

School ends. My sister arrives. She lives just outside Ottawa and takes us home with her for a holiday. Our first family holiday in years.

The budget is what's left over from what I earned from the original article. Most of it went for clothing.

The holiday money is well used. We spend Canada Day on Parliament Hill, see the fireworks, attend the Governor-General's garden party, go to the Museum of Civilization (it's free on Thursdays). We go to the war museum, the art gallery, the changing of the guard on Parliament Hill, the RCMP musical ride. None of the activities is expensive; they are all fun. My sister loans me her car, and we go to Upper Canada Village and spend the day.

My children begin to relax and laugh again. They quietly sit in the recording studio at CBC in Ottawa and watch their mother tape the piece for the radio.

Their Aunt spoils all of us mercilessly -- roasts and steaks at dinner, piles of fresh fruit, desserts at every meal, bottomless glasses of milk and juice. I am spoiled as well, enjoying the sleeping in, cooking only half the meals, the time alone while Aunt takes her nieces and nephew away.

The two weeks go quickly. The children see the night sky in the country; watch and count fireflies. Just before we pack to leave, my sister gives me copies of the photographs from the stay. I still take them out and look at them when things are tough.

My sister drives us home and we return to reality. Now that school is out, we discover just how small our living space is.

For the sake of family peace, I create another bedroom by curtaining off a corner for the youngest. It's small, but it's hers.

The apartment has no yard. The children find space to play where they can. They want their own backyard again; they want the pool back. They are still mourning the loss of their dog and cats.

The closest recreation centre has an indoor pool, but the fees are yearly and high. We decide to use the park in our old neighborhood about a mile away, $11 for a family membership for the pool for the summer. It's a trip we make frequently.

At the end of the month, my first mother's allowance check arrives, $1,479. I redo the monthly budget: $650 straight off for rent; $44 for my rent-to-own apartment washer and dryer (cheaper than the laundromat for four people); $15 for the phone; $13 for cable. That's $722 from the top.

I put away $20 for emergencies. This leaves me with $737 a month for food and clothing. It is higher than Regional Welfare, but not by much.

Because there is no such thing as a clean getaway, I deal with the last remnants of our old life. I may have stopped being middle class, but my debts didn't disappear when the lifestyle did.

I make arrangements to pay $50 per month from my Federal Family Allowance cheque until things change, leaving $51.01 to add to the family budget. Total money avilable to spend is $777.01 per month. I can earn up to another $175 before money is deducted from my cheques.

Fortunately, Family Benefits will average earned income over several months.

AUGUST

I find it very strange not to have a garden. Buying vegetables in summer is something I am not used to doing. I miss my flower garden as well.

Life settles back into the routine of cooking, shopping, cleaning. Friends and acquaintances ask what I do all day and tell me how lucky I am to be not working in the summer.

I invite them to spend a day with me, to see what it is I do with my time.

Making all of our food from scratch takes much of it. I must plan meals a day in advance. Boil soup bones the night before for stock. Two days a week I spend baking and making dough.

As a hobby it is fun; as a necessity, making granola once a week, every week, gets tedious.

The kids grow tired of the planned menu as well. They clamor for boxed cereal and junk food. It's another point of friction.

I scavenge the second hand stores almost daily. There are bargains to be had, shoes that have never been worn for $1. But you have to be there to go through the racks and racks, piles and piles, often.

In August, I look for raincoats for fall; winter boots as well. Developing an eye that can measure a piece of clothing without size tags on it is a skill I acquire quickly. Garage sales and most second-hand stores don't take returns. If it doesn't fit, it's been money wasted.

Learning not to buy is another important lesson. There are many unnecessary but desired things in second-hand stores. It's hard to practice restraint, but I make a list and stick to it.

I walk to the market once a week and home again with the bundle buggy loaded with the fresh produce. My parents donate money for jars, and another family member gives a cold packer canner.

Much of my time spent is canning, processing food for the winter. Peaches, pears, strawberries are washed, cooked, canned or frozen. The August heat doesn't make this a fun task.

I had hoped to return to school this fall. I realize I cannot right now.

We are still adjusting to this lifestyle. The children need my undivided attention for now. They are starting counselling to help them cope with our new life and their losses.

As a single parent, I am solely responsible for getting them to doctor's and dentist's appointments, and school interviews. Now the trips to the counsellor are added.

The shopping and food preparation fill the rest of the time. I re- adjust my life goals. I will work toward part-time studies in January and return full time next fall.

My cheque comes in at the end of the month with a surprise on it. This time the surprise is pleasant -- I have been allocated a $270 clothing allowance for back to school. I have learned my lesson about shoes. The inexpensive ones I bought fell apart quickly.

I spend $150 of the money on three pairs of running shoes of good quality. Sometimes you have no choice but to pay top dollar. The remaining $120 dollars buys new socks and underwear for all three kids and second-hand jackets for the youngest two.

SEPTEMBER

The patterns of our lives change again. School starts, and with it comes the inevitable trip forms and pizza lunches. At the end of the month I have $35 in trip form receipts.

The money is scavenged from the emergency budget. We turn down the offer to buy citrus fruit from the eldest's school. This excludes her from a class party because she made no sales. We don't buy the books, school sweatshirts or attend the film showings at lunch time. I wonder about our schools and what they are becoming.

Middle one comes home crying, again. Teasing about second-hand clothes. She thought she was bragging about how well her mother handled money.

The VCR breaks down. It is one of our very few sources of entertainment. We have been renting videos from the main library and having a family film night on Saturdays. It will cost more than $100 to get it fixed.

I understand the meaning of the impact of poverty for the first time. We can't afford to fix or replace anything except clothing.

The counselling appointments begin. First week, three separate trips to the counsellor. The bus fare costs more than $20 for all of us.

I call mother's allowance asking about a bus pass and some help with the fare. They refer me to regional welfare's Special Needs Program. I call in. The counselling has been recommended by our paediatrician, so I assume there should be no problem. The intake worker tells me I can't have the busfare subsidized. I know for a fact that if the appointments were for physiotherapy, I would get aid.

I suggest that she check with her supervisor, she does, and the answer is still no.

I get off the phone and call my MPP. His constituency assistant assures me she will straighten it out. A day later, I get a call back from both offices. The bus pass has been granted along with money for the kids' fare. The supervisor told the MPP's office the decision to deny me the aid was 'hasty.'

I find myself getting angry. Angry that I have to call in an MPP's office for help. Angry I must fight to get something the program allows. Angry that there will be no reimbursement for the money I have already spent from my budget. Angry that I must now go back to the counsellor, get a letter, take it to welfare, then wait for the request to be processed.

Near the end of the month, I get a phone call. The cheque has been sitting there for more than a week. Someone forgot to call me about it. Could I come down and pick it up? I do and we have busfare for the next three months. After that the request must be renewed with another letter from the counsellor.

The feeling that my life is not my own grows. That so much can depend on some else's decision frightens and upsets me.

I want to shout that I didn't ask to be in this position, I didn't choose this life. I struggle with the feeligs of resentment against a system that is supporting me. I feel at once ungrateful and powerless. I know that I will return to society the help I am getting now.

I am already doing some of that, working on the campaigns for the municipal election, doing volunteer work. I am giving back as much as I can for now. In the future, it will be my turn to contribute the tax dollars.

It's hard to be grateful. It's hard to listen to the 'welfare- bum' conversations; hard to keep hearing that I am getting a free ride, when every month is such a struggle.

A friend, another single mom, arrives for tea tired and discouraged. She is apartment hunting. Her current situation is becoming unbearable.

The tenants downstairs from her are causing major problems. Even with the flat housing market, she is having trouble renting an apartment. The landlords don't want to rent to a single mother on assistance. The apartments she likes are mysteriously rented after she reveals her source of income.

My landlord doesn't know I'm on assistance. I rented the apartment just before I went on. I am glad now that he doesn't know.

The cool weather arrives and I need shoes. There are special budgets for children's clothing twice a year, but none for me. I have size-11 feet. Despite three months of scavenging I have found nothing second hand that will fit. Normal shoe stores don't stock my size.

At a specialty store, on sale, flat walking shoes cost me $80 including taxes. I don't even like them, but they are comfortable and they fit.

I begin to make jokes about my hoof and mouth problems. My teeth and my feet are two areas social planning didn't reckon on.

I realize I must keep my sense of humour if I am going to get through this.

OCTOBER

Picture month at school. The eldest lines up in a separate place for all those who can't afford the pictures. The youngest two take back the un-opened envelopes of photographs. I can't even look at them. It would have been more than $30 for all three packages.

Week two, I blow it completely. It is Saturday, late afternoon, we are downtown. The VCR is still broken, so we can't rent a movie from the library. The children are tired and hungry. They are complaining about walking to the bus stop.

We walk past Swiss Chalet. I make an instant impulsive decision - - it is not a wise one. We go in. I steer the kids into the restaurant. They aren't sure what is happening. They break into large grins when they realize we are staying for dinner.

While waiting in line, my better voice of reason tries to remind me of the budget. I refuse to listen.

The kids pour over the menu, choose and re-choose desserts. It feels so good to treat them to something special. They eat their fill.

My lapse in judgement gets worse. While drinking my coffee, I send the oldest to buy a paper. I check for an appropriate movie playing in the mall. There is one. The tired unhappy faces have been re-energized and I want the good feeling to continue. I want to be able to say yes, just for a while.

The bottom line in cost for dinner and movie tickets and popcorn: almost a week's grocery money.

If I had been thinking I would have just put the money aside to help fix the VCR. But I had enough. I wanted to see them happy and having fun. I did, and we will pay for it by the end of the month.

The impact of being on social assistance continues to hit at me. In the drug store, I use my drug card for the first time. While I wait, several cash customers receive their prescriptions along with literature and a free sample.

When my turn comes, the pharmacist shows me the instructions on the label, pointing at the lettering as if I can not read. I get no free literature, no product sample. She enunciates slowly and carefully. I remark that I am familiar with antibiotics. I want to pick up my drug card and leave.

I resent the assumptions she's made about me because I am using a drug card. I find myself very sensitive to this kind of treatment. The month end comes closer.

Lavish Halloween costumes, one of my specialties, have become a thing of the past. I find fabric in the second-hand stores, buy no new patterns this year, re-vamp an old costume for one, manage to make the other. Moneywise, it hasn't been this bleak since May.

I learned my lesson about impulses. We are paying for it now. My mother's allowance cheque arrives five days early. It is post-dated to the end of the month. We are completely broke and very low on groceries.

I am getting desperate. I call one of the cheque cashing companies. They will charge me almost $100, but they will cash my social assistance cheque. It will mean I lose even more money. I contemplate it seriously.

Finally I decide to call my bank. I have dealt with the same branch for many years. I ask for the manager and say: 'Please, I will sign the cheque and leave it on deposit with you, can you please extend me a $75 overdraft?'

I remind her that it's her tax dollars, too. The fees at the bank won't cost anywhere near what the private companies charge. For this one time, she agrees.

I get busy writing and manage to sell an article that will make up the lapse in judgement as well as contribute to the Christmas fund.

NOVEMBER

One of the problems with being poor is that it is boring and repetitive. The same tasks week in and out.

I find I have to revise the grocery budget to include the occasional taxi fare as the weather gets worse.

I receive the GST refund. I look at it, realize that the government is phasing them out next year and that when they do, I will still be paying GST on used children's clothing and shoes.

The Child Tax Credit pre-payment is split three ways. It makes some headway with the old debts, puts a small cushion in the bank, and adds to the Christmas fund.

A week later the cushion I so carefully placed in the bank evaporates when we all get the flu. I am too sick to cook. Everyone I know has this bug, it seems. The eldest takes a couple of days off school when I'm too sick to care for the younger ones, who are also down sick. Two days later she is sick herself.

I can't face the thought of cooking, so the carefully-planned menus are lost and we eat canned soups and toast, meals that can be easily prepared. I'm too sick to walk to the grocery store and the corner variety store is expensive.

Trips to the doctor's office by cab consume more money. We manage the best we can. Slowly everyone gets better and back to normal.

DECEMBER

As we near Christmas, we plan, make our lists.

There is no extra money at Christmas. The cheques are for the same amount as always, so we had to start planning well in advance. We are sharing Christmas this year with another single parent, splitting the cost of the dinner and baking and making gifts together. We are looking forward to it.

As I re-read this, I feel I must bring it to an end. I have shared our experiences with you for a reason. It wasn't to tell you about the lack of money, although that is a struggle, a tough one.

It's the attitudes I've faced ever since the first worker walked through my door; the day-to-day hurts my kids experience; the loss of dignity and respect that hurt me; being judged and somehow blamed because I need help; my kids suffering because we need help.

My family is not a special case, not unique. According to the last survey done, by the University of Guelph in 1989, the average woman on family benefits is 32 years old, has two children, has at least one year of post-secondary education, and is enrolled in a program that will take her off the welfare rolls within 5 years.

Social Assistance has never been a 'free ride' for those of us on it. We work hard to raise our kids and have a some standard of living and we pay for it. The attitudes and prejudices we experience make the cost even higher. Think about us the next time you hear about the 'welfare gravy train' and please don't be one of those whose attitudes add to that cost.

The money paid for this article has been reported by the author to regional welfare, and deducted from her social assistance payments.


This is the third article in a series:

Karl Andrus recently returned to his hometown of Hamilton after attending Brock University majoring in History. He is a proud son of journalist and local activist the late Kate Andrus. He lives in Stinson, loves the vibrant and growing city, is Co-Chair of the Stinson Community Association and is active in many local groups and initiatives.

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