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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 5, March 2006

Poverty a result of priorities

The following is a speech given by Josephine Watson at Campaign 2000’s press conference on child poverty.

The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied; they are written off as trash. The 20th century consumer economy has produced the first culture in which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.

My name is Josephine Watson and I am a single parent of three boys, 10, 12, and 13 years old. I would like to speak today to the issue of being a single parent on welfare and the difficulties encountered, mainly in upgrading a work skill set and finding employment; particularly employment that offers sufficient compensation to support a family of four.

I found myself on welfare with three small boys—all less than four years old, with no extended family to rely on. I planned that I would go back to school when they were old enough, upgrade my education or hopefully complete my BA (which still had two years left), and go to work to support my family.

I soon discovered that this was not to be. The system that was in place did not allow for me to study a program of my choosing while on welfare. I was either on, or off. In the early 1990s such a program did exist and women could take a 9- or 12-month course to become a dental hygienist or legal secretarial program, but that program had been scrapped.

I contacted my financial aid worker to see what was available and was sent to an employment department of the ministry and given a list of approved programs. The programs available were for jobs that would have paid wages so low I would have continued to live in poverty and required state assistance. Many programs were aimed specifically at men. I asked if I could attend a program of my own choosing from, say, Douglas College and was denied. I explained that I would just be staying on welfare, doing nothing, rather than being on welfare and getting a working skill set. I was told that was just the way it was. The worker told me that her hands were tied. I felt helpless and hopeless; that this did not make sense and could not be right. But she was right. The system was set up for me to either stay put or get a low-paying job, but not to get an education.

I was not in a position to acquire a student loan, as I had been attending my second year of college at the birth of my oldest son and now found myself in default of the loan and unable to make any payments. My welfare income barely supplied enough for us to eat and pay bills. I applied for respite from the interest being charged, explaining my situation, and was denied. I even requested that I be extended a further loan so I could finish my education and become a viable contributing taxpayer, but this was also denied.

I was left with no choice but to self-educate. I volunteered where I could, offering my services in hope of learning something current, taking advantage of a program that provided respite childcare two days per week. That program has since been cut, so if I were in that circumstance today that would be one more opportunity closed to me.

By the time my boys were 5, 7, and 8, I had been out of the work force for over nine years. Given the speed at which technology changes and my lack of recent job experience, I found it impossible to acquire a decent paying job. My skill set was sorely inadequate. I took books out of the library in an attempt to learn current software and update myself. I eventually started working as a temp for an employment agency, taking what came along, living on EI when work was not available.

Throughout this struggle, I frequently denied my children new clothes, shoes, recreation, sports activities, and quality food items. On more than one occasion I could not pay for hot lunch on hot lunch day and had to disclose my circumstances to the school and ask them to pick up the tab so my kids would not know and not be teased. At Christmas time I had to seek out agencies that offered programs to sponsor a family in order to make sure that my boys had gifts under the tree and a turkey on the table. The stress of living in such uncertainty and hopelessness was sometimes overwhelming, making it difficult to deal with everyday life, let alone with planning for progress.

Some of the greatest injury has been to my self-esteem and to the self-esteem of my children. I have watched my student loan bloat from $3,800 dollars to over $10,000 and still no relief. I have had to say no to familiar family events such as Playland, water slides, tobogganing, and first-run movies with popcorn and pop. Even renting new release movies was out of my price range.

My children have endured being called "welfare" by school mates, being teased for not participating in fundraisers at school, and having to deal with teachers who harassed them for money for school events, agendas, etc. when I simply did not have the money to give.

I pride myself on being a role model to my sons and have struggled to maintain that position under the most trying circumstances of my life. I have struggled to hold my head high when wearing clothes that were out of date and shabby. I have been forced to plead for food, clothing and an education, things for which no one in a civilized nation should ever have to beg.

I suggest that barriers to education be removed, that women and children be treated with the dignity and respect they merit, and that the needs of women and children living in poverty be acknowledged and acted upon. We say we are a civilized nation, so we need to walk that talk!

This action would demonstrate that our governing bodies have the best interest of the future of this country in mind. The children are our future and the women raising them are leading the way.

Josephine Watson, First Call BC and Youth Advocacy Coalition.

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