Wednesday, October 15, 2008

blog action day 2008: poverty

This happened yesterday.

I'm sitting in the Baddeck Fire Hall with a local man of 72. We're working for the Municipal Election, District #2, as Poll Clerk (myself) and Deputy Returning Officer (him). I'm in the Hall kitchen making tea, and he's across the bar, waiting for the hot water in his cup. I'm telling him that I'm going to be writing a piece on poverty for Blog Action Day, although before I tell him that, I explain what blogs are, and that there is such a thing as Blog Action Day.

"I'm not really sure what angle to approach it from," I say. "I'd like to write about how we talk about poverty, here, in a small, rural town. You know -- we don't ever say, 'Oh, so-and-so is poor,' but we all know, more or less, where people stand."

"Yuh, yuh," he says. "Well, I'll tell you, people down in Toronto, they might have a lot more money than we do, but I tell you, when so-and-so is sick, and we hold a benefit dance or whatever, for him, well, people are just tossing in the twenties, even when they can't afford it!"

"So they support each other, a lot more, eh?"

"That's right!"

"I think," I say, "That part of it is that they know their neighbours more here. When you know each other, you want to help each other."


What is poverty? Is it "being poor"? And how do you measure poor? I've studied this, to a degree, in classes like "Women in the Third World", and it came to me through that class and through discussions with my friends, that it's not enough to use the Western standard of wealth to measure all other societies. For one thing, it's not sustainable for everyone on the planet to aspire to live at a Western standard. There simply isn't enough energy or resources. For another thing, it's downright insulting to assume that what we value is what other people value as well.

So. What is poor?


My immediate family never had all that much money. But when I was a child, I didn't know it. We went to the library to get books for reading, and I thought I was so lucky to be able to pick out all those books, and take them home, too! We ate well enough, mostly vegetarian, and we had twenty acres to play in. It wasn't until I started going to public school, and started comparing myself to other kids, that I had a notion of "poor".

After my parents split up, my father got together with another woman, who lived on Welfare. My brother and I spent half the week with him and his new family, and half the week with my mother. When we would come home from the time with Dad, our clothes would reek of cigarette smoke, because our stepmother smoked continuously, and lived in small, dingy basement apartments. The money she lived on wasn't enough to buy more for supper than Kraft Dinner, and hotdogs, and frozen peas and carrots in plastic bags. Even though my mother's income was only a little bit higher than what Welfare gave (she ran her own business and paid for many of my and my brother's expenses, because she happened to make a tiny bit more than our father), we could feel the difference between her home and that of our stepmother. There was a security to Mum's home.

So poverty is not just having or not having money. It's also about how you use the money, and about what you do that doesn't cost money at all: where you volunteer, if you use the library, who your community is. Even though it cost more up front, my mother would buy bulk, organic flour and beans and cornmeal, maple syrup, honey. Stretched out over time, the costs were less than you'd think, and we felt secure, and well-fed.

I don't mean to demonize my stepmother. She and my father did what they did, and for whatever reasons. What interests me here is the idea of poverty, of "being poor", and the differences between living with her and living with my mother, even though the difference in income was not great. I would love to be able to say that I never thought of myself as poor, but that's not true. I did. I thought of myself as poor when I was at school, comparing myself to the other kids, comparing my clothes to the other kids' clothes and my sneakers to theirs. I thought of myself as poor when we'd go into town, driving in a falling-apart rig, dog hair all over the place and all over my clothes, getting out of the car, knowing that everyone around us was aware of where we stood.


One time I was at home, by myself, at my stepmother's home. She was no longer in a basement apartment, she was in a farmhouse in the country. It was old and falling apart, but it was a farmhouse. There was a knock at the door, and I answered it. It was a neighbour, a man living about a kilometer or two down the road. He was married, and they owned a Bed and Breakfast. I usually only saw him at Hall events, never knocking on our door.

He was holding a cardboard box. He asked if my stepmother was in, and I said, "No, she's not." I must have been only 15 or 16, and since this had never happened to me before, I had no idea what he was there for.

He sort of awkwardly handed me the box. I took a brief look inside: groceries. Cans of this and that, bags of some other things.

"Oh!" I said, "Thank you..?!"

"Yes, well, there you go, that's for her, you have a nice day now." He turned and was about to leave.

"Do you want to ... come in? Have some tea?" I didn't really know what else to do, but I figured inviting someone in for tea was always a good thing to say.

"No, no, I better be off." And he left.

I brought the box in and set it down on the table. I can't remember what happened after that, and it doesn't matter anyway. But when I see that man around town now, I always think of that, of him bringing food to my stepmother. He knew she didn't have much, and so he brought food around. When I told my stepmother that day, that he had been there, she said that he did that fairly routinely. I had never known it, and I never saw it happen again.


I have the urge to try and round up poverty here, in this piece. You know, sort out for myself what poverty is, and how to "solve the problem". But because there are so many complexities to it, such as who considers themselves poor, and by what measure, and what they do about it, I don't think that's actually possible. Then there's the question: how much is poverty a problem? In some ways, I don't think it is. But then that comes back to the question of measuring and defining "poverty".

So I suppose talking about it is a place to start.

What do you think?

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