Poor Bashing

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People on welfare shouldn’t be allowed to buy booze, cigarettes or TVs. Why should we be paying for that kind of stuff?

If you spend any time on social media then you’ve probably seen these kinds of poor bashing memes that pop up on a regular basis, including those that demand welfare recipients be drug tested in order to keep receiving government assistance. UnknownThey not only piss me off, they also make me cringe and make my blood pressure go up when they pop up in my own Facebook feed. After all, it means some of my own friends are perpetuating many of the worst myths about people who live in poverty.

These memes suggest that people on welfare shouldn’t be using any of their welfare check on alcohol, cigarettes or electronics. Some memes take it even further.

Unknown-1It’s not enough to claim that – apparently unlike the rest of us – welfare recipients should be banned from having electronics, booze, tattoos, cigarettes or lotteries, they should also have to undergo regular blood tests to make sure they’re not on drugs.

This kind of ignorance annoys the hell out of me. For one thing, moral panics concerning people on welfare have always blown the problem vastly out of proportion, with plenty of research finding that not only is welfare fraud rarethese tests actually waste millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money, while also adding to the shame and stigmatization of welfare recipients.

In fact, drug tests for welfare recipients are not only expensive and inefficient (What 7 States Discovered After Spending More than $1 Million Drug Testing Welfare Recipients), pilot studies have found virtually no evidence of any drug abuse. Of course, these are all rational, logical arguments for why this kind of thinking is flawed, never mind the questionable ethics of bashing marginalized people with a lack of power. So how come we don’t have more memes which highlight and mock all of the tax dollars and breaks going to large corporations? Why aren’t there more comments on Facebook about all of the taxpayers’ money going to rich corporations in the form of tax subsidies?

And why do we love bashing poor people on the Internet?

That’s just a few of the many questions I’ve been considering and plan to continue to explore over the next few years, as a PhD student in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University.

I grew up in Point St. Charles, an industrial slum in Montréal that was then described in a documentary by the National Film Board as the “Toughest Neighbourhood in Canada.” Along with my five sisters, I was raised by a militant community activist single mom, Eileen Dobson, who didn’t hesitate to use guerilla style tactics while fighting for social justice in our neighbourhood. Although I grew up on welfare and dropped out of high school at the age of 15, I did eventually manage to go back to school and went on to complete an undergraduate and master’s degree.

A few years ago my book, With a Closed Fist: Growing Up In Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood (Véhicule Press) was published. It shares the social history of some of the grassroots organizations that fought for healthcare and educational reform in Montréal during the 1960s and 1970s, leading to the development of Québec’s first Community based Healthcare Clinic (which went on to serve as a blueprint for the rest of the country’s socialized healthcare system). My book also shares an insider’s view of the culture of poverty and examines the impact and ripple effect it can have on all aspects of one’s life. Although she passed away nine years ago, my mother continues to be my inspiration and the reason I want to examine, and perhaps even challenge, some of the ‘official’ dominant discourses around poverty. I hope to continue my mother’s work.

My research at Carleton University is looking at the construction, circulation, and reinforcement of particular cultural narratives concerning poverty issues and those living in poverty. In other words, I’m examining how the poor are represented, including by social welfare and government agencies, media platforms (such as the news media and also social media such as Facebook and Twitter), etc., and how this perhaps reinforces certain self-conceptions of those living in poverty.

For instance, the idea that people living on welfare are lazy – is this narrative in part propagated by the actions of particular social agencies, programs and initiatives? How is this narrative constructed in the public consciousness? At the same time, is it a way of thinking that is internalized by people living in poverty themselves?

I think we need to stop blaming the poor for their own poverty.

Calling bullshit on some of those Facebook memes might be an important first step.

Warm welcome at Algoma University

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Last week I gave the Peter McGregor Lecture, “Poverty and Transformative Social Change,” at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, located in the heart of the Great Lakes.

I felt incredibly honored to have even been asked, and extremely grateful for the opportunity to talk about some of the social issues raised in my book, With a Closed Fist: Growing up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood.

My favourite part was the question and answer period that followed the lecture. In addition to asking me a lot of really great questions (some of which I’m continuing to answer in my head even now) there was also a lot of sharing from the audience. One woman stood up and through trembling lips shared what obviously continues to be a really humiliating story for her.

“I’ve never said this publically before,” she said, choking back tears, then went on to describe a situation where, years earlier, she had been treated with such a lack of respect by the welfare office, it still haunts her today.

Another young woman talked about how she’s the first in her family to break free of poverty, and admitted to often feeling guilty for having escaped the cycle when so many of her family remain behind, still trapped.

I could have listened to their stories all night.

The next morning I spoke to a class of social work students at Algoma- students who seem genuinely committed to making a difference in the world. But I’m not surprised. Algoma’s Honours Bachelor of Social Work (HBSW) Program is committed to promoting social justice, community healing, and social change based on humanitarianism, egalitarianism, and anti-oppressive practice. The program emphasizes structural, Anishinaabe/Indigenous and feminist approaches to social work.

In the end, it was an incredible visit to an amazing school. Approximately 60% of the students at Algoma are non-traditional and although Algoma is the smallest university in Ontario, as the school states on its website: “Small University. Big Education.” Algoma’s size is also its strength as the school is the only university in Ontario that never has more than 65 students in a class.

Speaking before a classroom of future social workers was such an exciting opportunity. My book shares the journey of how a small group of committed social work and med school students help transform my mother and five sisters’ lives, and here I was standing before a class of social work students. It truly felt like a full-circle moment.