100 Conversations: How does poverty affect you?

Published on May 12th, 2010


100 conversations were undertaken with randomly selected Abbotsfordians (at the bus loop, and a local shopping centre) to gather input on what poverty means to people, what they feel causes it, and what might be done to improve the situation.

I initially thought that the participants would be split in to two groups:  those with an understanding of local issues, and those without.  However, three weeks, 100 conversations, and hundreds of rejections later, different trends emerged while sifting through the information gathered.  Through their answers, the participants seemed to divide themselves in to four groups, each of which gave like answers and expressed like opinions:  senior citizens, teens and young adults, “soccer moms” and their male equivalent, and new Canadians (with an outlier or two from each category, of course).  Each group seemed to express a unified perspective on the issue at hand.

Many seniors, when asked the first question responded with, “Poverty?  Here?  Son, I’ve seen poverty, and you don’t find it in Abbotsford”, or something to that effect.  I was then regaled with tales of shoeless winters in the Ukraine, property seized in communist Russia, or the hungry times spent in Yarrow, when 8 year olds had to leave school to go to work picking hops.  I couldn’t help but be humbled by what I heard.  In many cases, they were right.  Poverty of that sort and on that scale does not exist in Abbotsford, and for this we must be thankful.

However, another unifying sentiment was expressed by many in this demographic:  People who go without their daily needs are all lazy, and should just go get a job.  This response turned up among the other three groups as well, but not nearly as frequently as among the seniors.

A second cohesive vein of answers was expressed by middle to upper middle class people, most of whom were parents, or, as I referred to them earlier, “soccer moms and their male equivalents”.  From this group, most answers to the questions asked began or ended with the phrase “my tax dollars”.  Many in this group identified drug addiction as the leading or sole cause of poverty, and is found almost exclusively downtown and in the neighbourhood around Jubilee Park.  Concerns about local poverty centred around government spending to help people who are too lazy to help themselves, and the issue of safety in the downtown area.  When asked how to better engage the community on the issue of poverty, however, most in this demographic passed the buck to the church and government, saying that they should be doing a better job addressing these concerns (notice the logical fallacy here surrounding tax dollars).  This group was far more likely than the others to look at the issue of poverty strictly through the lens of how it affects them, rather than through the eyes of the people living in it every day.

Group three can be best described as the “I Don’t Know Group”, otherwise known as teens and young adults.  To be fair, within this group I did encounter some very thoughtful and compassionate individuals, but even they seemed to be more bleeding hearts than activists.  The rest were largely an apathetic bunch, and seemed completely unaware that there was anyone at all in Abbotsford living below the poverty line.  Forgive me for not spending much time discussing this group, but they truly had very little to say of any interest of relevance.  A cause for concern?  Yes indeed.

The fourth group, composed exclusively of new and first generation Canadians, had by far the most interesting views on poverty in Abbotsford.  When asked what comes to mind when someone mentions “local poverty”, answers such as “the boy at my son’s school who never has a lunch to eat” and “women who have many children but no husband” were not uncommon.  Many interviewees, particularly those from south-east Asia, made mention of their surprise that someone could work two jobs and still be poor.  People in this group were also more likely to say how “sad” or “embarrassing” it is for Abbotsford that there are hundreds of homeless people in this city, and hundreds more who are marginally housed.  It was very interesting to hear the perspectives of new Canadians on age old Canadian issues. 

The way our city looks through fresh eyes is quite a challenging thing to face.  Are we actually saddened and embarrassed about the state of local poverty issues?  Or have we just grown used to and come to accept that people in this well-off community in this wealthy country may just end up not knowing where they are going to sleep or when they are going to eat next?  One Vietnamese woman pointed out that a city with such a large religious community shouldn’t need a food bank.  Yet people like myself, who have never lived outside the Fraser Valley, can’t imagine the food bank not operating in the community. 

Maybe a fresh look at old issues is exactly what we need. 

"A fair number of single parents (women and men) who are struggling, trying to work with the responsibility of children"

"I work, but I'm two paychecks away from being homeless"

"The working poor are very much overlooked, they get the least resources"

"I think it's a lot more of us then we know, and if we're not living in it now we're a few months away if we hit hard times"

"[Poverty is] people who don't have home and families to spend the holidays with"

"You have to choose between eating and a roof over your head"

"I had no idea how little social assistance gave people. I think if most people knew what it was they would have more sympathy."

"Poverty affects the lives of everyone, not just the poor. Poverty has become normal – that's why we need to fight it."
What would have the biggest impact on reducing poverty in Abbotsford?

"[Housing] that can be afforded on social assistance"

"I think people should turn their cell phones off, and actually have a conversation"

"Getting the word out – we have such great programs, but people don't know how to access the aid, so they sit back helplessly"

"We need housing close to public transportation, and close to work"

"Insure that services are working co-operatively"

"Train people so they can help themselves"

"We need more compassion"

"More should be done, we're paying for our lack of support though our police, etc, and surely we could be doing something more compassionate. Shelters are good, but they're not an answer."

"Everyone out there has their own stories – nobody's listening and it's not right"

"You never know when the wheels are going to fall off your life"

"I lived on the street too long – I don't want to go back"

"There are better, more compassionate ways to help people"