What does it really mean to live in poverty? Why is it important to eliminate poverty in Canada? At CWP, our Board of Directors is made up of individuals from all over Canada who have a lived experience of poverty. So, we asked the President of our Board of Directors, Harriett McLachlan to shed some light by telling us about her experience of poverty.
In five words how would you describe your experience of poverty?
It’s hard to describe my experience of poverty in just five words. One can paint a picture of what it’s like to live in poverty and it could be all black, yet there can be moments when things aren’t so black. My five words of long term poverty: ‘a brutal experience of torment lasting decades’.
What is the greatest misconception you’ve heard from those not living in poverty?
It’s the same old thing, the idea that people living in poverty are lazy and don’t want to work. The idea that the individual should be blamed rather than looking at poverty from a structural point of view. Currently, there are approximately four million people living in poverty in Canada, in one of the richest countries of the world. How is that possible or acceptable?
What is it like to live in a world built for people not living in poverty?
I think a person who is poor is more vulnerable or susceptible to getting hurt along the road of life, the impact of which is deeper and longer lasting than folks who are not poor. The way our society is constructed, each time a poor person gets hurt they never fully recover, they are still wounded when they are hit by the next roadblock.
Poverty is like Mack Truck coming at you, barrelling towards you, and you only have a split second to jump out of the way. As you dodge one, you see another truck barrelling towards you and if you’re not careful or unlucky you can be hit by a third and by a fourth one that was not possible to see right away. How do you strategically manoeuvre towards safety in fractions of a second? How is it even possible to sustain this ‘escaping’ behaviour over the long-term? How can a person be a productive and contributing member of society under such challenging circumstances? That’s what the world is like for me living in poverty.
What would you like to know from a fellow board member about their experience with poverty?
That’s an easy question. I would want to know two things. The first is their story about how they moved through poverty and survived through it. The second is what they’ve gained and lost through that time.
What’s the best thing about living in poverty?
I don’t know if there’s a best thing about living in poverty. It’s a challenging question. For me, the question is: what can I be grateful about living in poverty? Because there is no best thing.
I am grateful to have the ability to transcend, to be creative and to be more sympathetic to people around me. This has helped me choose life, not bitterness, despite my circumstances.
My daughter said to me recently, “I didn’t know you were so poor”. For me, I’m grateful that I was somehow able to buffer my children from the negative effects of poverty. I had an education yet I was still very poor. I battled sewer rats in my living space for ten years and had terrible mold, but I was not on the street. My children were not taken away from me because I was poor. I had richness in other ways, like my children’s laughter and good neighbours.
Can you tell us something about poverty we might not know?
I participated in 1 of 7 cross-country focus groups a couple of years for the “Making Ends Meet” project funded through a grant from TD Financial. It reinforced to me the fact that poor people are actually very financially savvy, they know how to manoeuvre through challenging financial situations.
Are there any other questions that you think I should ask you?
One question I would want to answer is: if you had money, what would change? Poverty has a way of impressing upon a person their identity. So that when one comes to define themselves as poor, all the negative images associated with being poor are woven together with who you are. A person who is poor, especially in long term poverty, most likely see themselves through a lens of negativity. The lens is bleak, without life, without hope.
I never wanted poverty to define me. I volunteered for forty years giving to others so I wouldn’t be suffocated by the heavy weight of poverty consistently upon me. A person is still a person regardless of poverty.
Poverty is such a restricting force, like when you see old metal cars compressed by huge machines, stacks of flattened cars waiting to be towed away to a scrap yard. Poverty can be like that on a person, very crushing. There is a strength of heart that is needed to counter that or poverty will compress the life out of you. For me it is important to define who I am independent of my circumstances. That can be a very challenging thing to deal with on a day-to-day basis when the weight of poverty is especially heavy.
Is there anything else you want to add?
There is a profound cost to poverty. The loss of human capacity is one. Through my career I have seen many, many people who are so very restricted because of poverty, and that is a sad and wasteful thing. Poverty has worn away at me for a long time that I have not been able to reach my full potential. Yet I see the lives of my children and I am so happy for them. They have no blocks on their horizon, no Mack trucks barrelling towards them, there is no limit to what they can do. There are many things I could have done rather than just struggling through.
Harriett McLachlan (Montreal, QC) has a Masters in Social Work from Carleton University and has been working in the field for 25 years. She applies an anti-oppressive structural analysis to community development that focuses on poverty and inequality at the ground level with the lived experiences of people’s lives. Her early life of childhood violence and sexual abuse, and subsequent 35 years of poverty, 19 years as a single parent, has inspired her to effect positive change within the community sector.