This is part I of Kendall Worth's series of first-person accounts of social isolation as a person living in poverty, with a disability. Read part II here.
I am writing this article based on my experiences of being an income assistance client, and from knowing the income assistance community in Halifax for the past 13 years.
Social isolation is one of the main problems that people living in poverty face, especially those who are income assistance clients. I say this because individuals who depend on income assistance as their sole form of revenue don't have enough income to fully participate in society the same way that other income earners can.
The Nova Scotia government gives people with disabilities who are on income assistance $535, as part of their income assistance cheques. If rent charges are anything above and beyond that amount, then the remainder of the rent has to be paid out of monthly personal allowance cheques, which are $238.00. That's $773 a month to cover all of life's necessities, and in my experience it doesn't meet basic living needs, let alone leave anything over for social activities. [Editor’s note: amounts given to income assistance clients can vary depending on a variety of factors including family size, disability, and other special needs.]
When your only income is that month-to-month paycheque, daily life is not an easy task. For the socially isolated on income assistance, the day is spent trying to pass the time doing activities that don't cost the money they don't have.
Many of us do not show our faces outside of where we live, because they live in unsafe — but ‘affordable’ — neighbourhoods and make easily identifiable targets. Some will only go out days we really have to. For others, you see us out a bit during the daytime; however, we will not go out at nighttime.
You might also see some of us out panhandling or collecting bottles between cheque days. We do things like this just to survive, and this need to survive gives us a certain daily structure, and opportunities for sociability.
Still, the main reason those who are disabled and on income assistance are socially isolated is that we may have neither employment nor structure to our day.
Growing up in Antigonish, my family taught me that having structure in your day is an essential part of life, and it is part of the cure to social isolation. Structure is something a lot of people living in poverty don't have in their daily lives.
Besides low-income issues, persons with disabilities are also affected by social isolation because a lot of us cannot easily get outside our homes due to limited mobility or health problems.
Because of my personal experiences with social isolation, I try hard to keep myself active as much as possible. I sell Street Feat, the local street newspaper, and I take other volunteer opportunities when I have the opportunity to do so.
I'm fortunate to be mobile, and this helps me add structure to my day.
But some opportunities for structure are unattainable. Income assistance clients, and most others living in poverty, cannot afford to join a fitness centre, go out for drinks or join social groups that have expensive registration fees.
These are a few examples of activities that many people who do not live in poverty enjoy doing regularly and take for granted.
There are lots of people with disabilities on income assistance that aren't able to keep away from isolation. A portion of these people ends up losing interest in wanting to someday get off income assistance. Relationships with family and friends become strained, as income becomes a barrier to social interaction. This can sometimes lead to getting involved in illegal activities just to make ends meet.
I believe some sort of training and work programs need to be created for those living in poverty who want to better themselves by expanding their social circles. Income assistance clients, those with physical and mental disabilities and those without, do not want to be spending our days sitting at home and doing nothing.
Exercise and social activities are good for anyone’s physical health, in addition to their mental well-being, which makes you wonder why the Department of Community Services will not pay for more of these types of activities for income assistance clients with disabilities. Over the long-term, a small investment in clients' well being could potentially lessen the financial burden of increased physical and mental health problems in the long term.
Existing solutions to the problems faced by people on income assistance need to be more accessible; others need to be created outright.
There are some programs in Halifax to help people on low incomes have a bit of an affordable social life. However, not all persons living in poverty qualify for these programs, and they stand to be improved.
I will be elaborating on these programs, plus talking about other programs and their criteria for participation, in part 2 of my series.