Student raises local poverty awareness

Ontario Works, the basic social assistance program in Ontario provides a single adult with $585 a month, the average cost of rent in Kingston.
Ontario Works, the basic social assistance program in Ontario provides a single adult with $585 a month, the average cost of rent in Kingston.

Mira Dineen, ArtSci ’11, said she was surprised to discover the wide variety of people poverty affects.

Dineen recalls talking to an older man whose son had a mental illness and was struggling to find money to pay for food for his grandchildren.

“This older man had exhausted all of his financial sources and said he just couldn’t get out of the car at the food bank and sat in the car crying. He never thought he’d be in this situation,” she said.

Until she went out and spoke to people living in poverty, Dineen had no idea how dire the situation was in Kingston.

“I didn’t realize that poverty can happen to anyone, and many people on social assistance ended up where they are due to tragic life circumstances,” she said.

“A lot of Queen’s students don’t see Kingston as their real home because they are here temporarily. Unless you have a job or internship in the city you might not learn about local issues,” she said.

Last March Dineen decided to get involved with the issue by co-authoring a book with a Queen’s professor called Persistent Poverty: Voices from the Margins.

“This was the first opportunity I had to look at poverty in urban settings, right here,” she said. “I saw poverty four blocks from my house, and I just didn’t know.”

Dineen, ArtSci ’11, said people are unaware of how prevalent poverty is within their own communities.

Persistent Poverty tells the stories of impoverished Ontarian residents living in 26 different cities.

Ontario Works, the basic social assistance program in Ontario, gives a single adult $585 per month, Dineen said, adding that this is problematic when the average rent in Kingston for a bachelor apartment is $586.

“If you find a job while receiving Ontario Works (OW), 50 per cent of your wages are clawed back or deducted from your next month’s social assistance cheque…. I spoke to people who said they wanted to work but couldn’t afford to work because 50 per cent of their wages would be deducted,” she said. “After paying for transportation, work clothing, and child care, they would come out with less money at the end of the month by choosing to work.”

Dineen said as a result of these policies, the cycle of poverty can inadvertently continue.

“Everyone I talked to wanted to work. Social assistance keeps people in poverty and doesn’t support them in becoming independent,” she said. “The social assistance system needs to be reformed so people can get off social assistance.”

She said that in order to understand poverty in Kingston, she spoke to local low-income individuals.

“We went to places where people living in poverty would go, like soup kitchens and Martha’s Table,” she said. “Generally speaking, we spoke to people who were living on social assistance, or were working minimum wage jobs that would make them fall under a reasonable income.”

Dineen said low income residents often volunteered to be interviewed.

“We sent out fliers saying we are doing this project, seeking to give a voice to people who don’t have a voice. Places like Martha’s Table would’ve gotten fliers in advance. We didn’t just bombard people, they knew we were coming,” she said.

In the interviews, Dineen said she asked a series of questions, including how people came to be in a position of poverty seeking social assistance and what changes to social assistance would improve low income residents’ lives.

“Everyone said they needed more money,” she said.

According to Dineen, low income Ontarians are often subject to discrimination since people have preconceived notions about those living on social assistance.

“They say ‘stop being lazy, go find a job, stop relying on the government.’ People often have stereotypes that everyone on social assistance struggles with substance abuse,” she said.

However, talking to people in poverty led to some surprising revelations that broke down these stereotypes for Dineen.

“I expected to talk to people who grew up in poverty but most people were on social assistance because of life circumstances that anyone could come across.” she said.

In order to change social assistance, work at the government level is essential, but activism is important, Dineen said.

“There are lots of opportunities for Queen’s students to make an effort to know Kingston better. You can volunteer at places like Martha’s Table,” she said.

Co-author and Queen’s School of Business professor Jamie Swift said he and Dineen focused on anecdotes rather than data.

“By talking to low income people about their lives, we’re not giving a dry report on public policy but giving a direct voice to low income people themselves,” he said, adding that he approached Dineen and asked her to help him write the book after she spoke at a Queen’s Health Outreach Advisory Board presentation last March.

“I noticed she was articulate and well organized, and we couldn’t have done this without her work,” he said.

Persisting Poverty: Voices from the Margins was published in December by Between The Lines Press, Toronto.

Learning about Provincial Poverty

- 13 per cent of Ontario residents live in poverty.
- The median income for visible minorities is almost $10,000 lower than the median income for white Kingstonians.
- One third of all single mothers in the city are low income.
- Ontario works provides a single adult with $585 per month.
- The average cost of a Bachelor apartment in Kingston is $586 per month.
- 42 per cent of Canadians are semi-illiterate. This number disproportionally affects immigrants to Canada and those living in poverty.

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