By Heather Killen
Heather Howard will tell you that even on a good day, raising a family on social assistance is very hard work.
Trying to find enough money to pay the bills and feed her children 4, and 5, is a relentless balancing act. This Bridgetown area woman is among those who can’t help but worry that if something breaks, her family will get pulled into yet another downward cycle.
If the washer stops working, they have no money to fix it and can’t afford a trip to the laundry mat. When you are watching pennies, it’s hard to find enough quarters to pay for the extra loads.
Not only would the trip cost the family extra money in gas, it could require half a day to transport, wash, and dry the loads assuming she could find enough available washers when she went.
Living on the Edge
Living on the edge with two small children to support, a backlog of student loans to repay, and bills to catch up, the little ups and downs of life can make or break things very quickly.
It’s overwhelming to listen as she patiently explains the complicated steps, schedules, and policies that are in place to provide assistance to low-income families like hers.
The food bank is open two days per month, but families are only allowed one visit per month. After six consecutive visits, people are asked to take a break. Howard said in the past her family has been asked to make due without that support.
“I couldn’t believe it when they told me, you’re going to have to wait a couple of months before you come back,” she said.
These measures are put in place so that people don’t take advantage of the system. There seems to be a perception that people who use the food bank are abusing the generosity of others.
This is rooted in tales of expensive cars pulling up to collect the food, or people who just won’t quit smoking. Howard said it’s hard to say whether the expensive cars are actually owned by the same ones using the food bank, or perhaps by friends or relatives who lent them the use of the car.
These are not the only myths surrounding people on income assistance, or food security in Nova Scotia. While some people do take advantage of the system, many people don’t.
Howard grew up in the area and while her family always had enough to eat, they didn’t have money for many extras. She said she swore when she was growing up, she wouldn’t be poor.
After college she decided to go out west where she was making good money. After she became pregnant with her first child, she said she decided to move back home, wanting to raise her children in a small caring community.
In the beginning, it wasn’t too bad. She and her husband were able to make ends meet with employment insurance. Her husband had found a part time job working night shifts as a security officer.
But that job didn’t work out because he was always looking for a drive to Cornwallis, as the buses didn’t run late enough for him to be able to get to work on his own. Begging for drives in the middle of the night will only take people so far and lacking another option, she said he quit his job and the EI and social assistance were cut off for a time.
Deeper in Debt
The winters were cold and the houses they were living in were very hard to heat, so what money they had was put into the electricity, and later an oil tank and they sank deeper in debt.
She said the family ‘lucked out” when they were able to access low income housing in 2009, a measure they hoped would only be temporary. They both tried going back to school for retraining but now, two years later she says he’s since found work, hired on a casual basis, but any extra money he brings home will be gone before they see it.
“The rent is automatically adjusted to a higher amount,” she said. “It’s almost impossible to break the cycle.”
What little money the family has is rotated around in an intricate shell game of paying down rent, food, bills, and student loans. She also worries about the car’s safety inspection that is coming up.
Living in a rural area about 10 kilometers outside of the nearest town, it’s difficult to look for employment without a vehicle, telephone and Internet. She added it’s hard to know what she can cut back on, as they don’t go out.
Wendy Knowlton, of Family Matters Resource Centre, said there are various myths surrounding people on income assistance and the topic of food security. Food security is defined as the ability to buy enough healthy and safe foods to meet dietary needs for an active and healthy life.
“One of the myths surrounding food security in rural Nova Scotia is that residents have continuous access to fresh fruit and vegetables from the many orchards and fields during harvest time,” she said. “A second myth around food security in rural Nova Scotia is that residents are simply too lazy to work. After all, there are jobs during the spring, summer, and fall seasons around farming that go unfilled.”
A 2009 study conducted by researchers at Mount St. Vincent University concluded that income related food insecurity is an ongoing issue for about 9 per cent of Nova Scotian households, higher than the national average of 7.7 per cent.
Low income families and those living on social assistance are most impacted and the average cost of a basic nutritious diet is actually higher in rural areas than urban areas.
According to data complied by Annapolis Valley Health, about 47 per cent of the people in our communities are earning less than $20,000 per year. Poverty, isolation and stress are key factors in developing chronic illness.
Poverty is linked with higher rates of crime, increased health care needs, higher school drop-out rates, and lost productivity, according to researchers.
In 2011, Feed Nova Scotia reported that the number of people relying on food banks is increasing with a shocking 59 per cent increase in the number of families assisted in the Valley-Yarmouth region since 2008.
Knowlton says there are many reasons why people in income assistance don’t apply for seasonal and low-paying part-time jobs. Anyone on income assistance will have most of their wages clawed back if they work in this industry.
Secondly, transportation becomes a problem if you don’t own a vehicle, or live off the main bus route. Thirdly, the hours during the growing season are extremely long. It’s difficult to work a 12- to 16-hour day if you have children.
Assuming there is childcare during those hours how much money will actually be made once the childcare expenses are paid?
In the coming weeks, the series will continue to explore the myths surrounding poverty, and the strategies needed to address the growing costs of ignoring it.