Welfare stereotypes keep people poor and hungry, filmmaker says

Jackie Torrens (L) and the film's producer, Jessica Brown outside The Hall

Jackie Torrens (L) and the film’s producer, Jessica Brown outside The Hall

Nova Scotia filmmaker Jackie Torrens says the idea that people on welfare are lazy scammers sitting in their subsidized apartments guzzling beer, smoking cigarettes and watching their big screen TVs, arises from a desperate need to distance ourselves from the poor.

“The stereotypes perpetuate this narrative that if you’re in poverty or if you’re on the (welfare) system it’s because of a moral failing in you,” she told an audience in Parrsboro on Saturday, adding that people actually end up on welfare because of a variety of circumstances that could happen to anyone.

Torrens made her comments after her recently released, 45-minute documentary, My Week On Welfare, was shown at The Hall during the 5th annual Parrsboro Film Festival.

The film identifies other stereotypes including the Welfare Queen who deliberately has more babies to keep ever-increasing amounts of taxpayers’ cash rolling in.

“Right now what we’re telling ourselves is, poor people are scammers and I don’t have to go to bat for them,” Torrens said. “We’re using that stigma to let ourselves off the hook, to give ourselves moral comfort.”

My Week On Welfare tells the stories of three welfare recipients in Halifax-Dartmouth who don’t have enough money for food because Nova Scotia’s social assistance rates are so low.

During the making of the film, Torrens, who was a 19-year-old single mother on welfare herself in the late 1980s, tries to live for a week on the average of four dollars per day that two of the better-off welfare recipients get.

Her $24 budget buys her toothpaste, toilet paper, a loaf of bread, a dozen eggs, a small packet of coffee, a small jar of peanut butter, eight packets of oatmeal, a litre of milk and three bananas, but no fresh vegetables or meat.

Single mother’s story

Sherreace Higgins, a 30-year old single mother, is in the best shape financially with a little over seven dollars a day to feed herself and her 10-year-old son Mahkayden. But that money has to cover other necessities too including clothing, medicine, school supplies, cleaning products, phone service and bus tickets.

Higgins was studying social sciences at Dalhousie University when she was suddenly cut off welfare because the system discovered she was receiving student loans. Fortunately, with financial support from her parents, she appealed to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court where the judge sided with her, ruling that the student loans were a debt, not an asset. She is now hoping to graduate with her degree in May, land a good-paying job and get off welfare permanently.

Welfare and disability

The film also tells the story of Aron Spidle, a middle-aged man who earned a master’s degree in theology from Acadia and worked for years in spite of the disabilities he was born with including cerebral palsy and asthma. He also suffers from migraine headaches and arthritis. But, four years ago, he lost his last job at a fast food restaurant after a bad fall down a steep flight of stairs left him unable to work.

The film points out that 60 per cent of welfare recipients are disabled, and the system forces them to live in poverty. In Spidle’s case, he was receiving only $127 a month or just over four dollars a day for food, necessities and drugs he needs that are not covered by the government. Spidle tells Torrens that he’s often forced to juggle his medications because he can’t afford all of them.

At one point, he suffered a bad flare-up of a bowel condition called diverticulosis, but couldn’t afford drugs to treat it and ended up in hospital where he almost died.

Worst case

During the filming of My Week On Welfare, Torrens visits Robin Hodgson, the victim of a workplace injury that has left him in a wheelchair living alone in a filthy, run-down apartment that he shares with mice and rats. Hodgson was receiving only $90 a month (about three dollars a day) for food and necessities and tells Torrens that he’s starving.

He can’t afford a phone, so even in winter, he has to navigate icy streets and sidewalks in his broken-down, motorized wheelchair if he needs to make a call to his welfare caseworker.

Political pressure needed

During the question and answer period at The Hall after the film, Torrens said people who aren’t on welfare need to speak up for those who are, instead of perpetuating stereotypes that blame the poor for their own misfortunes.

The previous NDP government cut special needs provisions that helped bail recipients out if they needed a small amount of money to make it through the month. And, since taking office in 2013, the Liberals have frozen welfare rates, a freeze that may continue until a review of the system is completed in 2018.

“Frankly, I think all three parties have a lot to answer for when it comes to leaving people with inadequate rates and living in poverty for decades now,” Torrens said, adding that until more people raise a fuss, the system won’t change.

She said food banks and soup kitchens help a bit, but it’s up to the government to fix a broken system and the government is abdicating its responsibility.

“The point of this is that the (welfare) system is punitive and the system is punitive because our attitudes towards poor people are punitive,” she said.

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To watch My Week On Welfare, click here.

For more information on Peep Media Inc., the company that made the film, click here.

To read a commentary by Aron Spidle, click here.

To read a CBC piece on why poor people and their advocates are worried about the provincial government’s review of the welfare system, click here.

To read a CBC piece on the fight for welfare reform in Nova Scotia, click here.

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