‘Welfare recipient’ asks: How will you judge him?

By Trevor Hutchinson

There are few extras but when there are they are celebrated.

Change is what we talk about. A possible Colborne Street bridge has been argued about in coffee shops in Lindsay since before there was a Tim Horton’s.

If you’re of a certain age, you might have argued about widening Highway 35 northbound into Lindsay — as your A&W waitress delivered your Teen Burger and root beer to your car on roller skates.

I don’t know about you but I have been in a ‘Will they ever build a Walmart?’ conversation a thousand times. With the possible exception of municipal amalgamation, we and our forbearers have been used to change that is often glacial in these parts.

'Welfare recipient' asks: How will you judge him?
Trevor Hutchinson, for The Lindsay Advocate.

But less than two years after the City of Kawartha Lakes council voted to officially take no action on a request to even investigate the idea of a basic Income guarantee – the first cheques are out, and Lindsay is ground zero of the great basic income experiment. TVO — all the way from Toronto! — came, so it must be important.

The Ontario Basic Income Network is holding their annual meeting here later this week, so we know it’s earnest.

What is about to happen here is about to be news. The data collected from this pilot project – and there will be gigabytes of it — will be parsed and used by social policy theorists, referenced by policy makers and politicians of every stripe.

Soon anyone who argues about the social safety net, yea or nay, at any level of government, will be using data and anecdotal evidence gathered in Lindsay.

This change can’t come fast enough.

Change is by definition disruptive. It’s not one size-fits-all. It’s usually hard, and often the hardest to change are the judgments we make about each other.

I judge people. So do you. We all do. It’s hard-wired into our DNA. Sometimes that judgment starts with the first piece of information you get about a person. If I meet someone and tell them I’m a singer-songwriter that will steer the conversation a certain way; if I lead with my hobbies or my church, even more so. If I start with my day and how I love being employed full-time in construction or how I love being in a family with five kids the conversation that follows is fairly predictable and usually enjoyable.

If the first thing I tell a stranger is that I am a welfare recipient a whole host of opinions are formed and not all of them verbalized.

Some will assume malfeasance, others defect of character and most failure in general.

But here’s the deal: I am not low-wage, I am low income. I work full-time, above minimum-wage and my family still qualifies for some portion of Ontario Works. I am part of a growing demographic in our society: the working poor. And membership has few privileges.

I am employed on the books at or above the market rate for my position. I endeavour to be paid more. That will happen if I can justify through greater productivity, increasing my skill base or whatever catch-phrases of liberalism you want to use, that I am worthy of that raise. I take pride in working. I work every day at a job I love for an employer who treats me with incredible respect. And I try, in return, to expend all the energy I have to try to help support my family – it’s a simple and fair value proposition that is simply not enough.

The structural and fundamental changes to our economy are intellectually interesting if you study economics or get paid to opine about such studies. At ground-level they just mean never even looking in the organic food section at the grocery store.

Being poor sucks. Beyond any external stigma, there is an emotional cost to not being able to provide for your family like you think you should be able to. It can disable the ability to dream, to plan for a better life.

When you have no money to invest there is de facto zero investment in your future. Working 50 hours in a week on things you are proud of should be enough to take your kids to the mall instead of the Salvation Army.

I’m a worker. It’s what I do. I proudly come from a family of workers. You work hard, support your family, and you take pride in doing so. I don’t want to have to rely on a government or anyone else to do what I should be doing.

No one owes me a living. I grew up learning from both my parents: you work, you support your family at all costs and you help your community. But something happened between my parents’ generation and mine. I can’t spend the time I want researching it and intellectualizing it, but something went off the rails: A series of tectonic shifts in our economy, in how we share the bounty.

I had to break for supper while I was writing this. Just after the Food Basics macaroni, the youngest kid asked ‘when do I get to take karate?’ The third oldest answered, with authority: ‘Never. It’s too expensive. Just like I can’t play hockey.’ The inherit sadness of that won’t take away any of my work effort tomorrow. It won’t make me a minute late. But there’s a chance I might arrive a little sadder.

There is still a vestige of compassion in our system. The problem might be that this same compassion has been professionalized, compartmentalized and scattered across many programs amongst many levels of government. I am thankful for the $75 low-income hydro reduction program, the Healthy Smiles program and the other nods and winks given to those of us under the poverty line, each requiring a different form and a different bureaucracy to administer, a different czar to bow to.

Every extra shift I take reduces our Ontario Works cheque dollar for dollar and my goal is to have that cheque be $0. I just don’t know how we’ll pay for prescription drugs.

I don’t want a hand-out. I’m ashamed to need a help-up — but I’ll take it so my kids never have to feel this way.

The thing is, I’m actually lucky. I’m two months in to non-precarious employment. We pay our bills, there is food on the table — even if too much of it is processed because that is all we can afford. But no one goes without love, food and a feeling of safety in our home and I try to find pride in that. There are few extras but when there are they are celebrated. We try to reinforce to the kids that working hard is its own reward, despite any overall personal evidence to prove that.

I live 20 minutes outside of Lindsay so I won’t be part of the Lindsay basic income experiment. But I am hopeful that a single-tier program that eliminates barriers to success, enables self-improvement and doesn’t penalize self-effort, while hopefully reducing the administrative delivery costs of existing supports, may actually be possible.

I don’t know if the Lindsay project is the answer. I don’t have the energy to argue with the people who despise the poor because, frankly, I worked all day and used what energy was left trying to improve my family and myself.

But I have lived long enough to know that change is coming, faster than a Walmart.

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