© 1992 Karen Selick
  The Smokescreen of Poverty

An edited version of this article first appeared in the May 27, 1992 issue of The Globe and Mail.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


The Smokescreen of Poverty

The poor will always be with us, says the Bible--but it wisely refrains from speculating on the reasons why.  There are always fireworks when this issue is raised.  

In her article "A Grinding Response to Poverty"  (Globe & Mail, May 15, 1992), attacking a column I once wrote for Canadian Lawyer magazine, Beth French ends with a challenge: "Try living in poverty.  For one day."

Although she opposes the stereotyping of poor people, she obviously subscribes to a stereotype of lawyers: they must be born with silver spoons in their mouths.  She assumes  that I oppose the welfare state because I've never experienced poverty. 

Think again. 

My parents, the children of poor immigrants, had only high-school educations.  By the time I was born, they had worked their way up to middle class. 

They taught me many important lessons.  Two were: Stand on your own two feet, and The world doesn't owe you a living. 

I left home when I was 19 years old.  I hadn't started law school yet.  From that day on, I have been completely self-supporting.  I didn't receive financial assistance from my family.  I never wanted, or received, a government grant for my education.  I never even took a student loan. 

I worked evenings and weekends to put myself through university.  In the summers, I always had at least two jobs.  I worked seven days a week, for months at a stretch, with only statutory holidays off. 

I walked home after work, sometimes at 11:00 p.m., up Toronto's Yonge Street strip, ignoring the importunings of men seeking prostitutes or spare change. 

I lived for years in a rooming house, sharing a kitchen with people who regularly pilfered my groceries and intermittently denigrated my ethnic origins.  I became well acquainted with the habits of cockroaches.  My  wardrobe came from Honest Ed's.  Coupon clipping was imperative. 

I could have done what Ms. French did: dropped out of university, got pregnant, had a child.  I could have chosen to remain poor.  I considered that scenario, and found it unappealing.  So I chose differently. 

Ms. French, looking at the same scenario, decided she liked it.  She made it her story--against the advice of many, she admits.  Fine, she's entitled to her choice. 

What she is not entitled to do is to demand that I, who rejected that option for myself, alleviate the discomforts of her choice at my expense.  She may not demand that the very people who advised her she couldn't afford a child pay taxes to provide her with retraining, subsidized day care, cheap housing and empathetic social workers, now that she's tired of being poor. 

As a lawyer practicing family law, I meet many single parents.  I know women who support families uncomplainingly on jobs that pay less than welfare.  I have the utmost respect, even admiration, for them.  They could give lessons on money management to many people wealthier than themselves.  But they're a rare breed. 

I've met a far greater number of welfare recipients who can't seem to get by on higher incomes than the working poor earn, even though they have no daycare expenses.  Sometimes they must think they've unwittingly stumbled into a doctor's office instead of a lawyer's, because of my unrelenting campaign to get them to quit smoking.  But when they prepare budgets showing they spend $150 a month or more on alcohol and tobacco--a figure that's not uncommon now, sin taxes being what they are--how can any sensible person condone this?

Sure, there are probably lots of rich people who spend even greater amounts on their vices, but there's one major difference: there are no rich people's advocacy groups asking the government to coerce more money of taxpayers' pockets so that they can feed their kids without having to change their lifestyles. 

I can't cite official studies to support my observations.  There aren't any, and it is unlikely there ever will be any.  The thesis that individuals might be even partially responsible for their own problems is politically taboo. 

Besides, the welfare bureaucracy and the "anti-poverty" lobby, who might be able to obtain supporting statistics, have a vested interest not only in the perpetuation of poverty, but in its expansion.  I don't.  When I've written on this subject in the past, however, a number of conscientious Social Services employees have contacted me privately to confirm my observations and encourage me to speak out. 

We do have statistics suggesting that some of our anti-poverty policies are creating, rather than reducing, the problem of child poverty. 

In Ontario, family benefits began as a program for married mothers who had been widowed or deserted by their husbands for more than a year.  The numbers were small.  Over the years, eligibility has continually expanded. 

Now, a pregnant teenager can keep her baby and go on "Mother's Allowance. " she need not complete school.  She need not work.  She can even set up housekeeping with a common law partner (other than the baby's father) without losing her benefits. 

Experts estimate that in 1971, fewer than 20 percent of the babies born to unwed teenagers were raised by their biological mothers.  By 1986, more than 90 percent were.  These are the children who swell the poverty numbers we keep torturing ourselves with. 

Meanwhile, there are childless couples across the country desperate to adopt.  The waiting period for healthy preschoolers in some provinces exceeds  ten years.  Canadians are paying tens of thousands of dollars per child to arrange adoptions from Third World countries. 

These would-be adoptive parents would love to rescue a Canadian baby from poverty.  Instead, they are taxed at increasingly higher rates to finance welfare programs which encourage teenagers to keep those babies in poverty. 

This is insanity, and we must not sweep it under the carpet simply because discussing it is going to hurt somebody's feelings.  

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posted March 5, 2003