Reflections on growing up in poverty

Recently I have been reflecting a lot on the issue of poverty. In particular I have been thinking of my own experience growing up in poverty and wondering what factors led to me escaping poverty.

To provide you with some background I was the lone child of a single mom who was unable to work throughout my childhood. While she was diagnosed with narcolepsy, what she really had was pronounced clinical depression that, given the medical system’s understanding of mental illnesses at the time had her misdiagnosed and improperly treated for much of my childhood. Money came from Ontario’s Mothers Allowance program (welfare by a different name) and we lived in a small one bedroom, cockroach infested apartment – the building’s occupants included a hodgepodge of drug dealers, drug takers, welfare recipients, and single moms. I grew up in a small manufacturing town where poverty seemed to be all around.

So what helped in my journey out of poverty? First and foremost, while we had a poverty of income, I never experienced the more damaging poverty that can occur, which is a poverty of love and care. Despite the challenges my mom faced, I was always sure that she loved me and was in my corner. I never went hungry and I always had a home.

While love and care were vital, I realize there were some other things that helped including:

1. The Mothers Allowance program provided income stability. It wasn’t ever enough as we never had enough money to make it to the end of the month but it is interesting to note that the Mothers Allowance rates in Ontario in the 80s and 90s are not much different in absolute terms than what rates are currently in BC despite significant differences in cost of living and the impacts of inflation. It allowed us to live in the same apartment building for my whole life (my mom still lives there after 38 years). While the apartment building was sometimes sketchy, it was relatively safe and we didn’t ever have to move meaning I never had to switch schools.

2. We had other support – I was fortunate growing up, my mom had the same boyfriend for pretty much my whole childhood. Not only did he provide stability, he was able to provide us some financial support from time to time from his income. My aunt and uncle and their family also lived in town and I was able to hang out at their house from time to time and we also got financial support from them from time to time. In fact we lived with them when we first moved to Trenton. My mom also got me involved with the Big Brothers/Big Sisters Program and I had a big brother for much of my childhood who had a pretty big influence on me, particularly in terms of providing me a male role model. My mom was also able to get me into sports, particularly hockey, soccer and eventually golf (which was actually really cheap for a junior) which was vital to me developing other social connections and having another positive outlet for my energy.  In essence, the village reared the child and I was fortunate to have good people around me.

3. Education – access to education was very important for me to getting out of poverty. I was fortunate to start with, I excelled in school and generally enjoyed it so I didn’t need to be pushed to go. My mom also emphasized doing well in school – she had high expectations for me and I don’t know if it were ever in doubt in her mind and eventually my own that I would go to university despite any financial challenges we had – it never seemed out of reach and perhaps my naivety led to me having a $33,000 debt at the end of things but it was a pretty solid investment. Importantly there were also good programs for kids living in poverty to aid them in getting their education. Another often overlooked education support was that there was a bus to my elementary school every day and we lived across the street from my high school. Getting to and from school was really easy. I can’t overestimate how important this was for me – due to my mom’s misdiagnosed depression, getting out of the house on time was a challenge for her. I don’t know what would have happened if a school bus wasn’t provided that took me to my elementary school – it was probably a similar circumstance for many other kids living in my apartment building.

There are many other things that helped me emerge from poverty but these were the pretty important ones. You can also see some key themes from this. At an overarching level I was given a foundation from which I could succeed. I was lucky that I had a loving and caring mother and despite some of her challenges, she never faced issues with dangerous addictions and was relatively stable in her own way. In addition, there was great stability in income, educational support, positive social connections, and housing. Related to this was the fact that government support, while not enough, was more generous, because it is not enough for the government support to be stable, it also has to be adequate to pay for food and shelter and ensure that kids living in poverty have access to a good education.

This is a brief recap of my experience with poverty.  There is a tendency, as with most things, to try to homogenize experiences with poverty in order to develop policy and actions.  While the stats and the big picture is always important, it is just as critical that individual stories of poverty are told and successes and failures of poverty abatement are understood.  This is particularly important as many of the people that are shaping policy and programs do not have a lived experience with poverty.

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