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Elizabeth's story

Struggling (and failing) to make ends meet in rural Nova Scotia

by Rural Poverty In Annapolis Valley West

The hard realities of living in poverty in rural Nova Scotia. Practically invisible, Elizabeth struggles (and often fails) to make ends meet. Photo SoundPrint.org
The hard realities of living in poverty in rural Nova Scotia. Practically invisible, Elizabeth struggles (and often fails) to make ends meet. Photo SoundPrint.org

This post was originally published in the excellent Rural Poverty in Annapolis Valley West. Check it out!

It is the first in a series of posts about what it is like to be poor in rural Nova Scotia, most particularly in the western end of Annapolis Valley, in the riding of Premier Stephen McNeil.


Elizabeth looked at the letter addressed to her and sighed.  She had just received the letter from the Department of Community Services telling her that she was to be at their office for an annual review on the 29th of March.  It was April 12 as she read this letter.  Elizabeth, a single woman in her late 50s,  hoped she wouldn't be cut off from her monthly disability payment of $475 a month. An annual audit means that she must, each year, prove to the Department of Community Services that she is still disabled and that she is not making any income.

Elizabeth had only just received the letter from the Department of Community Services because Canada Post moved her mail delivery services last year.  Instead of going to the end of her driveway to get mail addressed her to rural route, she now had to get her mail at a community mail box 7 kms away - a 14 km round trip - and she does not have any transportation.  She cannot afford a car; she cannot ride a bicycle because of her age and disability and there are no buses that come even close to her road. Even if a bus did cover her road, she could not afford the $8 round trip bus fare once a week on her monthly disability stipend.  So she relies on friends and neighbours to pick up her mail for her. Elizabeth has sometimes gone 3 months without seeing her mail.  She has also sometimes gone three months without leaving her property

Elizabeth lives on a secondary rural road in Annapolis County.  Her house is old and in great need of repair.  But she inherited it from her parents and it is mortgage free with 4 acres of land. Elizabeth has serious medical problems that prevent her from doing a lot of things, but she wants to live on her family homestead.  After two abusive marriages, she wants to live alone.   At one time she owned and ran her own restaurant in Halifax.  But after several physical beatings and fleeing her last marriage in the middle of the night, she wants the peace and solitude of the country. 

She grows a small vegetable garden in her back yard and has learned how to preserve the food out of the garden.  Last summer when Hurricane Arthur came through, it blew down several of the trees in her backyard. Elizabeth dug out her father's old chain saw and, taking it bit by bit, she sawed up the blown down trees for winter wood. It took her several weeks to do this with her disability but she stuck to it and got at least a cord of wood out of those trees.  Another friend knew of a property that had a lot of scrap wood they wanted to get rid of so Elizabeth and her friend drove an old truck to the property and salvaged the old wood for Elizabeth's winter wood. 

Last winter was one of the worst winters in recent memory.  Deep snow falls meant that when Elizabeth's wood stockpile that was in her porch ran out, she had to wade through snow that was chest high to get to the wood pile outdoors to get some more wood.  It was exhausting for her.

As Elizabeth only had 3 cords of wood for the winter, she ran out of wood at the worst possible time; during the February blizzards.  When the Salvation Army put out their applications for emergency fuel, Elizabeth applied immediately and was lucky enough to be selected. (She can only  apply once every 3 years though) They generously delivered 2 cords of wood to her door.  Unfortunately, most of it was green and didn't give off much heat.

She closed the doors to any superfluous rooms and lived in her living room and kitchen. Her living room contained her small wood stove and opened on to her kitchen. She kept both these rooms heated as much as she could to keep her pipes from freezing and bursting. Elizabeth spent most of her winter huddled underneath her electric blanket on her couch.  With no cable, satellite, or internet to entertain her, Elizabeth borrowed DVDs from friends, did puzzles or played solitaire to pass the winter away. When the weather permitted, an occasional friend that had a vehicle would drop in to see her and see if she needed anything.

Elizabeth also goes to the food bank each month if she can get there.  Sometimes a friend will drive her there and wait for her, other times she has to pay someone $20 to drive her to the food bank and back. Before she goes to the food bank, she takes a quick trip to the drug store to purchase some minutes for her second hand cell phone. Often, it is her only trip out of her house during the month. 

No wonder she is an invisible woman in rural poverty.

Her $475 divides into $15.83 a day depending upon how many days there are in the month.  With this amount, she must put aside money for her winter wood (@ $250 a cord and she needs 6 cords per winter) pay for her electricity, food, clothing, telephone and any other miscellaneous things she needs such as shampoo and soap.

It has often been suggested to Elizabeth that she sell the house she has inherited. Elizabeth points out that she cannot do this as she and her brothers inherited the house and they do not want to sell the family homestead. They have agreed, however, to letting their sister live there.  In addition, if Elizabeth did sell the family homestead, she would have to rent an apartment in the local town.  This would mean that she would have to apply for an increase in social assistance of another $400 to $500 a month.  In addition to this, Elizabeth suffers from hyper-vigilance and anxiety attacks as a result of the abuse from her marriages. She is not comfortable around more than one or two people and, especially, not men.  It is difficult enough for her to be around so many people while waiting her turn at the food bank.  The thought of living in an apartment building with men in it sends her into a full blown panic attack.  Living alone in the old family home is the best mental health option for Elizabeth.

She puts the letter down and picks up her cell phone.  The cell phone is a cheaper option than a land line but any calls during made or received the day cost her per minute.  If she is put on hold when she makes a daytime call, it could cost her the whole month's credit on her pay- as- you go cell phone. Luckily, she gets through to her case worker right away today and she sets up another appointment with her for her annual audit. Elizabeth is lucky in that she has an understanding Case Worker whom will not cut her assistance off without a good reason. Many other local social assistance recipients are not so lucky.

After 6 pm, when her cell phone calls can be made for free, Elizabeth arranges for a drive to the local Community Services office for her appointment date.  It will cost her $25 unless she can find a friend to do it for free.

"Look on the bright side" she says with a smile. "At least it will be a morning out of the house! I will get to see other people."

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Topics: Poverty
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