© 1990 Karen Selick
If the Poor Donít Care, Why Should We?
An edited version of this article first appeared in the September, 1990 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


If the Poor Donít Care, Why Should We?

I usually sort my mail directly over the garbage can, since that's where most of it ends up. 

Recently, though, a mailing from the Canadian Council on Social Development was rescued from imminent garbagehood by its very inanity.  It simply cried out for an answer. 

It contained an excerpt from former NDP leader Ed Broadbent's last speech in the House of Commons, on child poverty.  I quote: "The study done recently for the city of Regina looking into hunger, produced a virtually unanimous report on the following points when it came to the causes of poverty.   It was not due to waste. It was not due to laziness, mismanagement, bingo, booze or wilful neglect. It was due to the fact that the families were without money." 

Wow.  I hope Regina didn't spend a lot of money on that study.   They could've simply looked up "poor" in the dictionary.  Mine says: "Lacking material possessions." 

In any event, this monumental discovery aroused the House of Commons to a fever of indignation.  They voted unanimously to eliminate poverty by the year 2000.  Although the resolution is meaningless in practical terms, any politician with a shred of survival instinct had to vote in favour of it. 

Those like Mr. Broadbent, who are so profoundly influenced by simple cause-and-effect statements, should try this one on for size:  The reason we have so many poor children in Canada is because poor people keep having children. 

When I read about the growing numbers of hungry three-year-olds, I can't help wondering what their parents were thinking of three years and nine months before. 

That's not a long time to plan ahead.  If they knew they were poor when they were conceiving the baby, what made them expect to be not-poor after the baby was born?  If they didn't care enough that they'd be raising their child in poverty, why should they expect the rest of us to come to the rescue? 

Certainly, some poverty is caused by marriage breakdowns, but even that can hardly be described as unforeseeable.  In my family law practice, I see a continuous parade of young mothers who apparently gave no thought whatsoever to the character of their mates, the stability of their relationships, the family's earning potential, or virtually anything else relating to the economic future of their children. 

Why should they?  There's always "Mother's Allowance" if things don't work out. It's not a princely living, but it's not significantly different from what they had while they were married. 

A case in point: I acted in a divorce for a woman about two years ago.  She ended up with custody of her two kids and a modest support order.   Although both kids were in school, she chose to go on welfare rather than get a job. 

A year later, she came back to see me again.  She had just had another child, by a different man, and he was disputing paternity.  I asked what form of birth control they had used.  None.   Why not?   "It was okay by me if I got pregnant. I thought it would settle him down." 

Even if this woman had no life experiences of her own to draw on, an occasional reading of Ann Landers should have been enough to clue her in that this strategy would be--shall we say?-- problematical. 

Do I feel sorry for that baby?  Yes.  Will handing his mother more money improve his life?  Possibly, marginally, in the short run.  In the long run, however, all it will do is convince the mother (and eventually, all three children) that there are no negative consequences to behaving irresponsibly. 

Another time, I had the dubious pleasure of cross-examining a welfare mother with three children.  Her husband, my client, wanted custody, claiming among other things that mom had sold all the kids' beds and they were sleeping on the floor. 

Mother admitted that they had only one mattress among the four of them, and that they took turns using it.  She also admitted that she spent $100 per month on tobacco.  When I asked whether she would consider giving up smoking for a few months to buy new mattresses, she literally shouted at me: "I've given up enough already!"  I resisted pointing out that her beloved children seemed to be the ones doing most of the giving up. 

An employer I know tried to encourage his staff--unskilled labourers earning less than $20,000 a year--to quit smoking.  He posted a chart showing how much money they would have at retirement if they put their cigarette money into an RRSP instead.  He also offered to pay the cost of an anti-smoking program. 

Only one out of 20 smokers took the course.  Another man looked at the chart and said, "Gee, I wouldn't know what to do with $65,000!"  It was almost as though his lifetime agenda called for him to consume a specific number of cigarettes, and he knew he'd never manage that many if he waited until age 65 to start. 

Kind-hearted, middle-class people find it hard to blame the poor for their poverty. I understand why, because I used to feel that way.  The behaviour I've just described is almost inconceivable until you've actually met people who behave that way.  Nevertheless, the truth is that many poor people earn their poverty.  I, for one, am tired of being blamed for it.

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