I recently presented some of my research on the myths surrounding some of the most popular misconceptions about ‘welfare fraud’ at a conference hosted at Carleton University. Plot spoiler: welfare fraud isn’t actually a ‘thing.’ The statistics reveal that it’s in fact a rare event, though you couldn’t be faulted for thinking otherwise thanks to the media’s (mis)representation of welfare ‘cheats.’
I think the claim that we’re all born equal is a particularly stupid one since of course it’s not true. A kid born into poverty is already at a different starting point than the kid born into a middle class family. And that’s just one obvious example.
People of colour, Canada’s Aboriginal population, and other members of marginal communities are already at a huge disadvantage as well when it comes to this idea about being born ‘equal.’
The problem then becomes that if we accept this notion about all of us being born ‘equal’ as some kind of absolute truth – which so many seem to – then we absolutely judge those who end up on social assistance, especially those who appear, at least to us, as being able-bodied.
That’s why I love this meme. Of course, this isn’t just true of our educational system. It’s also true of social class when we suggest or believe that all of us have ‘equal’ access to ‘success.’
What happens if you suddenly become disabled and unable to work and earn a living?
That’s what recently happened to 19-year-old ‘Jess’ after he was seriously injured in a cycling accident. With a concussion and broken collar bone, Jess, who was formerly healthy and fit, was suddenly forced to do something he never expected to have to.
I asked him to share what went into his decision about applying for social assistance, and whether it changed what he had previously thought about other people who are also on welfare.
As part of a new ongoing series, “The Poverty Report: Systems, Narratives, and People,” I recently sat down with two women, who have lived with poverty, and asked them two questions: What are some of the common misconceptions people seem to have about those living with poverty? What do you wish you could say to them?
Here’s what they had to say:
This week is Freedom to Read Week, an annual event that encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to freedom of expression and intellectual freedom, guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Carleton University has a series of events planned throughout the week; As the author of a challenged book, Kathy will be kicking off Carleton’s ‘Readings from Banned and Challenged Materials’ event by reading from her book With a Closed Fist. Members of the Carleton community will also be reading from other challenged and/or banned books.
Check it out Feb 24th, in the Main Floor Reading Room (lvl 2) of Carleton’s MacOdrum Library Main Reading Room @ 12:00pm.
Hope to see you there!
From Carleton’s School of Journalism and Communication News page:
“A book written by PhD student Kathy Dobson, in the School of Journalism and Communication, will be the focus of a panel at the How Class Works – 2016 conference at Stony Brook, New York, this coming June.
The panel, “Writing the Class Out of Poverty: Autobiography, Gender and Consciousness in With a Closed Fist: Growing up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood,” was proposed by Dr. Herbert Pimlott, a professor in the department of communication at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo.
The panel will be addressing the themes of class and culture, and race, gender, power, and social structure. Presentations will introduce and discuss Dobson’s 2011 memoir, which provides an account of the challenges facing a poor family headed by a single mother on welfare in Montréal in the late 1960s from the perspective of an eight-year-old child.
Dr. Pimlott says Dobson’s memoir is both an exemplar of the long tradition of the classic working-class cultural form, the autobiography or memoir, and a unique perspective of telling the story of growing up poor without judgment.
“This presentation will position Dobson’s memoir within the larger tradition of working-class writing in the Canadian context, and with reference to developments in working-class writing since the 1970s, including references to particular writers, such as Helen Potrebenko and her 1975 novel, Taxi,” says Dr. Pimlott.
The presentation will also argue that Dobson’s work is significant because it illustrates the issues that fuel divisions within the poor in a large city but also implicitly addresses the issue of whether the poor can be considered a separate category to or part of the working class, as Michael Zweig, Jack Metzgar and others have considered.
Kathy Dobson is looking forward to discussing her current research in an additional panel, where she will be presenting a paper on how people living in poverty are represented on social media.”
Kathy was a guest on CBC Ottawa Morning on November 9th (2015).
She was interviewed after she was awarded a Vanier Scholarship. The segment, How are Canada’s poor being misrepresented?, highlights the focus of her research as a PhD student at Carleton University.
Kathy discuses her research into ‘poor bashing’ and the narratives that are told about those living in poverty. Part of her research focus is on how the poor are portrayed in the news media, social media and government reports, and how these shape and influence the public’s perception of those living in poverty, as well as how these portrayals ‘shame and blame’ those who have lived or continue to live in poverty- the impact these portrayals have on the victims of poverty in Canada.
No, I didn’t actually have a five-minute meeting with Justin Trudeau. But after being asked by a CBC reporter last week what’s the one thing I would tell Canadians about poverty if I could, I started thinking about how much I wish I could have a conversation with Mr. Trudeau about the ugly side of poverty nobody wants to talk about.
Let’s be honest here; we want our poor to be grateful, deserving, quiet, and ideally, not
embarrass us with anything that might make us feel uncomfortable. In other words, don’t talk about food bank lines, broken or missing teeth, a lack of shampoo, soap or toilet paper, being hungry and cold, or the dozens of other daily indignities that often accompany being among some of the poorest in Canada. Let’s not put anyone on the spot by talking about that deep sense of shame, lack of hope, and overwhelming sense of sadness that I know I grew up with, along with my five sisters and our single mother, while trying to make ends meet on social assistance.
I’ve learned over the years that if you dare, however, to even hint at such ugly truths, you often actually make it easier to be dismissed because the ugly truth is that plenty of us don’t really want to help someone whom we consider to be icky, or worse, embarrassing. (Maybe this is partly why so many people find it easy to walk by that homeless person, the one holding out an old Starbucks or Tim Horton’s paper cup, hoping for some coins? They are literally invisible to some. Or perhaps just repulsive?)
As I share in my book, With a Closed Fist: Growing up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood, in the early 70s, while growing up on welfare, my younger sister Barbara wrote a letter to then Prime Minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau. She was nine years old and had recently learned that letters to the Prime Minister didn’t require a stamp. So she wrote him quite a lengthy letter, telling him all about herself, her family, and asked if he’d like to be pen pals. After all, it wouldn’t cost more than an envelope for either of them. Although our mother was shocked, my sister wasn’t when a few weeks later she received a personally written reply from the Prime Minister, saying his secretary, who apparently shared the same name as my sister, Barbara, had just shown her letter to him and they had both been “so charmed and delighted” he had decided to write back. It was a kind and friendly letter, one my entire family lived off of for weeks. Suddenly we weren’t invisible. My little sister had said all of our names in her letter. As a kid at the time myself, I remember somehow taking comfort in the idea that the Boss of Canada had read my name, even if only in his head, while reading Barbara’s letter. It was a powerful moment for all of us. We existed. We mattered. At least for a while.
The CBC reporter had called me because of a Vanier Scholarship I’ve recently won, and she was doing a pre-interview about my research. Her last question was: what did I wish I could tell Canadians about poverty? Although I instantly answered the question, I’ve been thinking it over ever since.
I told the reporter that if I could tell Canadians one thing about poverty, it would be that poverty is not a choice. And if we would stop treating it as if it were, it could change everything.
Child poverty in Canada is three to five times higher than countries that make it a priority to eliminate it, and there is still no national plan in place to reduce poverty and child poverty in Canada. Obviously poverty in Canada is a complicated issue with no easy answers. But I think the first steps are simple – just acknowledging and seeing, rather than turning away from, that ugly side of poverty, so that we can start working towards making a real difference for those one in seven children in Canada still going to bed hungry each night.
I believe we need to have a conversation about how much, whether consciously or not – our government policies, and attitudes towards those in poverty – are shaped by our belief that it is somehow a choice. Poverty is not a choice. So let’s stop treating it like it is.
Maybe I should ask my sister if she wants to write another letter to another Trudeau.
Kathy will be a guest on CBC Ottawa Morning on November 9th @ 8:20am.
From the Carleton Newsroom:
Carleton Graduate Students Win Eminent Awards
Two Carleton University graduate students, Kathy Dobson and Colin Miyata have won prestigious Vanier Scholarships worth $50,000 per year for up to three years.
Miyata works in Mojtaba Ahmadi’s Advanced Biomechatronics and Locomotion (ABL) laboratory in the research intensive Faculty of Engineering and Design at Carleton, where researchers are working on developing devices to help people learn how to walk again and prevent patient falls after a stroke, injury or accident.
Miyata believes safety procedures should be in place to ensure safe human-robot interaction. He is developing a process that will help. His research will develop a sensor on the surface of a robot that will them to sense contact with the environment. When contact is detected, the robot will avoid it while continuing its task.
Dobson, now doing her PhD with the School of Journalism and Communication, looks at representations of the poor, including representations by social welfare and government agencies, media platforms and how these can reinforce self-conceptions of those living in poverty.
In addition to their Vanier awards, Dobson has also been offered a Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship and an Ontario Graduate Scholarship, while Miyata has been offered an Alexander Graham Bell Canada Graduate Scholarship.
As a single parent on welfare, my mother fought for social justice, improved health care and education. She was always asking whose voices are missing whenever social workers and policy-makers would talk about the cycle of poverty and insisted we needed to develop a common language when speaking about poverty and the poor.
During my time at Carleton, I have had many opportunities to research a wide variety of biomedical engineering applications including implant materials, assistive devices, crash test dummy instrumentation and robotics. — Miyata.
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