OTTAWA — When Mira Dineen began gathering stories for the book Persistent Poverty: Voices from the Margins, her biggest surprise was how the poor “defied stereotyping.”
The fourth-year Queen’s University student expected she would be talking to people who had grown up in poverty. That was not the case. “People we spoke to really broke that mould,” said Dineen.
“A lot of the people we spoke to ended up in poverty working minimum wage jobs or dependent on social assistance because of life circumstances that could really happen to anyone,” she said at the Ottawa launch of the book at City Hall Jan. 26.
Circumstances precipitating poverty included: mental health illnesses, physical health issues, workplace accidents, or the breakup of a relationship, she said. Most had exhausted all their resources and were not able to find work.
The book, sponsored by the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition, (ISARC) a provincial interfaith body that receives funding from the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario, sent a team of volunteer interviewers into 26 cities and town across Ontario, she said.
Dineen, one of three co-authors, worked on the book as an internship for her global development studies at Queens. Having not been involved in poverty activism before, she called the work an “eye opener.”
The goal of the project was “to consult the real poverty experts to get a sense of the lived experiences of poverty in Ontario,” she said.
“Many are living in poverty,” Dineen told a packed reception room at the Ottawa City Hall. “It could happen to anybody.”
“With these projects we hope to give voice to those who are often ignored by politicians,” she said. “I felt so honoured they were willing to tell their stories, stories of resilience and hope as well.”
“It’s a phenomenal re-telling of stories,” said Sault Ste. Marie MP Tony Martin, a Catholic, who flew to Ottawa for the launch.
“We need to be telling these stories to our families and friends so they can know the real human dimension of poverty, the real tremendous need across this great country.”
Martin spoke of the private member’s bill last June, Bill C-545, which calls for a national anti-poverty strategy that would coordinate with what he called a growing movement for provincial and city-wide anti-poverty strategies. He called the book “one of the tools” for this movement.
Kat Fortin, who worked on the ISARC social audit for Ottawa, said she had special concerns for those with disabilities or those needing special diets for health reasons.
“I know people right now that can’t get the help they need getting a special diet,” she said. “They are going hungry, they can’t just eat anything.”
Christina Dib, who described herself as a “member of the working poor” said she was asked to tell her story for the book.
Dib works at a minimum wage job, as do her adult children who cannot afford to move out. She said they can’t take the luxury of holidays. She knows she is overweight but she can’t afford exercise classes or more expensive healthy foods.
no more dreams
“I don’t have dreams anymore,” Dibs said. “I used to have the dream of owning my own house. That’s never going to happen.”
The book paints a picture of the destructive effect of poverty on relationships, when parents can’t afford extra school fees or lessons for their children; on social life and work when the expense of travel confines them to their apartments; the demeaning treatment by social assistance case workers; and the rising cost of living that public assistance is not matching.