St. Stephen – In 1973 Tanya Hatt was born into poverty in St. Stephen, and in 2019, some 46 years later, little for Hatt has changed.
She has lived through the death of her parents and brother, and through a divorce which wiped out the years of hard work she had put into trying to build a stable, middle class life for herself and her 12-year-old son.
As I interview her, she pauses for a minute as she remembers something, and reaching down to her purse says, “I brought you a gift,” handing me a mason jar full of homemade jam.
Throughout my long conversation with her, I’m repeatedly struck by how this simple and thoughtful gesture encapsulates the message that she repeats.
“Poor people are the most vulnerable population, but they are also the most generous,” Hatt tells me, emphasizing without community support, those vulnerable populations drift towards what the more fortunate often consider them to be – a drain on society.
“The difference between poor people and rich people is opportunity and support,” she states succinctly, before telling me about the many low paying jobs she has worked from the age of 14, in an effort to claw her way towards economic stability.
“I used to laugh that I’m everybody’s favourite poor person, because when people have conversations with me or hear me speak – I’m not what they assume a person living in poverty is.”
She’s right. The myths surrounding poverty are as tired as the academic and statistic filled conversations people have about it.
“Through no fault of my own, I grew up in a poor family who didn’t have as many opportunities for financial independence as other families did,” she says.
Canada offers a fairly robust welfare system intended to support those who for one reason or another are unable to support themselves, but as with most complex issues, solutions tend toward bureaucracy and away from a human understanding and the flexibility required to truly tackle the problem.
“I am what I consider the average poor person,” she tells me.
“I did very well I school, and I bought into the idea that if you work hard and you study hard, you’ll be okay. You’ll have a nice house, and a nice car, and a nice life.
“That was not the truth.”
Hatt can’t afford to fix her furnace, hence heats her house in the winter with kerosene, which costs $1 an hour, further limiting her ability to climb out of the pit of poverty.
Twenty-five hundred-years ago, a Chinese philosopher named Confucius said, “in a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.”
There is a 26.7 per cent poverty rate amongst children in Charlotte County. There is also a hidden and insidious opiate abuses which wreak havoc on families in our communities.
In New Brunswick in 2018, the rate of suspect opioid overdoses (who responded to naloxone) overall was 15 per 100,000 people. But the highest rate was reported in the Saint John Health Region, with the number almost doubled at 28.7 per 100,000. Statistical anomalies aside, it’s a disturbing number to be presented with.
“There are misconceptions that people deserve to be in the situation that they are in, that they must have done something to create the situation,” she tells me.
“What the facts say are that most of the people living in poverty in our community are children. So when you say that they are lazy and useless and drug addicts and not trying to help themselves – they’re eight-years-old. And to demonize and demoralize their parents for having poor coping skills to deal with a life that is monstrous helps nobody.
“Yes, sometimes they self-medicate,” she says.
Hatt tells me that, “it’s impossible to save money because I don’t make enough just to live. I can’t get ahead enough to fix my furnace, and the only loan I can get is at 35 per cent interest. I fell for that trick when I was 18 years old and I never will again.”
She adds she recently got a vehicle, and even though it’s old and unreliable, “it might as well be a Cadillac, because it has changed my opportunity in this world.”
“When you live rurally, you need a vehicle or else you’re paying half of your paycheck in taxis to get to where you need to go.”
But it is not just economic insecurity that the poor deal with. There is a distinct perception in society that those who struggle are lesser.
“If you drop out of school because you couldn’t cope, or because you had to work to help feed your family, and then you make a couple mistakes, you now have criminal record, no GED, likely no family doctor, and a sense that you’ve tried but failed, and so what’s the sense in trying, because people like me don’t get ahead.
“And then you have a generation of people that have learned a sense of hopelessness. And when you’re looked upon as a scourge and as a drain upon society – who would want to ask for help? And if you somehow manage to, you get intermittent and overworked social workers and mental health workers. There isn’t a long-term, integrated approach to helping the individuals that live in poverty.”
In fact, it’s estimated 1 in 7 people live in poverty in Canada, and 21 per cent of single mothers raise their children in poverty, compared to 7 per cent for single fathers. Statistically, it’s estimated around 15 per cent of New Brunswickers live in poverty – slightly higher than the average across the Atlantic provinces. Data shown by Statistics Canada shows the highest percentage of the population living in poverty across the country to be those under the age of five.
There are a plethora of people like Tanya Hatt living in Charlotte County. People who despite their best efforts, continue to struggle, and live in poverty. The success of a community is usually considered to reside in metrics like employment rates, population growth, income levels, and education levels. These are all important metrics to be sure, but perhaps another way of measuring success is how well a community treats its most disadvantaged.
If you would like to share your experience of poverty in Charlotte County, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org