What it’s like to live on welfare

University District

The Journal plays the Poverty Game to get a glimpse of life on social assistance

Twenty-five students participated in the “Poverty Game” on Oct. 21. Professor Margaret Little co-ordinated the event for her WMNS 241 class.
Twenty-five students participated in the “Poverty Game” on Oct. 21. Professor Margaret Little co-ordinated the event for her WMNS 241 class.
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Last Saturday morning, while some students recovered from a night out or studied for upcoming midterms, myself and 24 others were filling out welfare applications.

Although not particularly challenging, the four-page document did provoke some questions from everyone. Superan, Insur. Ben., or Seg. Funds? It sounded like a cryptic language and I was fumbling for some sort of guide.

This form was followed by yet another, a 10 page “Determination of Spousal Status” document that sought to uncover who did the grocery shopping at my house and whether I ever opened my co-resident’s mail.

Luckily, our group could depend on Margaret Little, a Queen’s politics and women’s studies professor, for any questions we had about to the forms. However, she reminded us that the reality for those applying for social assistance is that, “If you have a question, it takes about two days to get an answer.”

Little teaches WMNS 241, a gender and poverty course in its inaugural year and the reason behind the Saturday meeting. As well as applying for welfare, we were going to try to live in Kingston with current welfare rates for two months by playing “The Poverty Game”—a board game developed in 1981 by six women in British Columbia.

At first glance, the game board resembles Monopoly, but on closer look, Park Place is replaced with “Late Cheque—Pay $5 for Food” and Pennsylvania Railroad becomes a choice to pay $20 for children’s shoes—a nominal cost until I realize that my monthly assistance amount, minus utilities, rent and weekly expenses, is only $270.

And then professor Little hands out our identity cards. My name is Heather. I am 24 years old. I have two children—a three-year-old and a five-year-old. My income is fairly good as a barmaid, but I have on-going back problems that keep me from working full time. I smoke and I don’t own a car. One by one the players in my group introduce their new identities. Only one of us has a car, and all of us smoke.

The game is set to begin in November, “one of the coldest months in Kingston,” Little tells the group. We are also reminded that without a car, we must rely on taxis and buses, and factor those extra expenses into our weekly costs. Suddenly, I’m wishing I could use my student card for the bus. But, I’m not a student anymore.

As the game gets underway, I start to realize how stressful it is to raise a family on $67 a week. The board has a series of choices, and when you land on one, you can decide whether or not to pay for it. New kid’s shoes? Sure. I decide that since I’ve been living on welfare all my life, I’ll do my best to improve the livelihood of my kids. Every time I get the choice to improve my children’s lives, I say yes. Money for hotdog day? Done. Free Ski program? Even better. The only thing I neglect is myself.

I decline a $25 fee for a new dress and decide that $15 for used furniture is too exorbitant. During one turn, I am given a choice card offering the services of a babysitter. At first it sounds like a great idea, but the more I discuss with the group, the more I am sobered by the costs for transportation and entertainment. I decline the offer.

Although I’m afraid I’ll run out of money before the month ends, I manage to make it. But despite being debt-free, I have to make some tough decisions: “Those with extra money need to decide to declare it or hide it,” Little tells us.

Declaring the surplus means I’d have to give it back, hiding it would mean committing welfare fraud. I chose to hide the money.

***

Professor Little said she hopes players will get a better sense of the often negatively-construed idea of social assistance.

“I think it would challenge misconceptions and stereotypes people have about living on welfare,” she said. “My sense is that they were really getting into their roles, and learning how impossible it is to get ahead. I heard them saying really insightful things.”

Little, who focuses her research on Ontario welfare cases, said the province has one of the more stringent programs.

“Ontario and BC, [tend] to be the meanest provinces for people on welfare,” she said, adding that the province’s rates are among the lowest in Canada.

“For a single person living in Kingston, the maximum amount of assistance they can receive per month is $536,” she said. “In my books, it is impossible to live on the current rate.”

Little added that women depend on welfare for longer periods of time, while single men rely on welfare for the shortest duration.

“Single moms have nothing,” she said. “I can’t get over the amount of people on welfare without phones.”

Little said this causes problems for people seeking jobs, as they find themselves relying on other people’s telephones.

Another facet of the program that can also hurt those on social assistance is the province’s Welfare Fraud Hot Line, which allows callers to anonymously identify and report someone participating in welfare fraud.

“You can’t get ahead and if [you] keep a little after, you’re afraid you are going to be caught for fraud,” she said, adding that in her research, many women explain that their ex-boyfriends call to report them.

“The women I interview on welfare are always too terrified to do anything.”

Manitoba stopped using its welfare fraud hot line, and Little said she hopes Ontario follows suit.

“They realized it cost more money to run the fraud line than they were collecting.”

Little explained that the hotline breeds an atmosphere of suspicion.

“Everyone who is on welfare is paranoid,” she said. “They have less trust in people.”

As for abusing the social assistance system, Little said it shouldn’t be a priority.

“Three per cent of people on welfare are cheating the system,” she said. “However, 22 per cent of Canadians cheat when they declare goods when crossing the border. Why aren’t we focusing on others instead of focusing on the poorest?”

Little added that most people cheat the system out of necessity.

“When they are cheating, they are not going to Hawaii on a holiday—they got an extra hundred bucks from their brother [that] they are spending on food.”

Emily Macgillivray, ArtSci ’08, said the game helped contextualize information she’s learned in the course.

“I think the game shows you how little things, like spending $2 for a coffee, add up,” she said. “This is the first time we have had to budget. Although we are not actually experiencing the problems, it gives a more practical perspective to the academic theories.”

***

Fast forward three hours. According to the Poverty Game, we’ve been living for two months.

Little organized us into groups according to identities. I found myself sitting with four other Heathers. It looked like over the course of the game, I hadn’t done too badly. One Heather—Nael Bhanji, ArtSci ’06—ended up with two unplanned pregnancies and a house that burned down.

He said a prior project, where Little had students live on $28 for one week, the average amount of welfare after someone pays rent and utilities, prepared him for the game.

“Professor Little had the class spend the week on a $28 budget,” Bhanji said, “So coming into this, I knew it would be hard, but the big difference for me was having these life events adding to the burden of having no money.”

Emily Fortier-Brynaert, ArtSci ’08 and classmate, agreed.

“It opens your eyes to how truly difficult it would be on welfare,” she said. “Playing the game is one thing, but actually going through these things is a whole other dynamic.”

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