Poverty report shows single men faring less well than single moms
winnipegfreepress.com – arts-and-life/life/home_family (Online Edition)
Posted: 06/15/2011. By: Bruce Cheadle and Heather Scoffield, The Canadian Press, Ottawa
Ginny Witkowski has been a single mom in abject poverty, and later — by circumstances also beyond her control — a married mother of six in abject poverty.
Now a successful Winnipeg business owner, Witkowski says poverty is poverty. To be frank, she found more pride in her situation as a desperate single mom.
“There was a sense of pride about me because I did it,” Witkowski said in an interview. “I worked hard and I figured it out and I didn’t get help from anyone.”
A new national study by Statistics Canada shows poverty is still much higher among single mothers than among the general public. But with one in five single moms living in poverty, they have seen a steady improvement for the last 15 years — even during the recession.
The same study, released Wednesday, found that almost a third of single men are living in poverty.
Single men have long wrestled with a poverty problem, and 2009 was no different. The percentage living with low incomes was 30.1, up from 27.9 per cent in 2008.
The report challenges Canadian understanding of who needs help, why, and how to help.
Witkowski’s tale is instructive.
Twelve years ago, Witkowski clawed her way out of single-parent poverty by dint of wits and hard work.
“I didn’t know about help, and there’s so many resources for women in that situation. I didn’t know they existed,” she said.
“I remember feeding my kids rice for dinner. No vegetables, no meat. I had nothing but water to drink. It was really a difficult time.”
But after putting her life back together and remarrying, Witkowski fell back into poverty when, during a troubled pregnancy, she was bedridden in hospital for five months.
Her fledgling financial-services business collapsed and her husband was forced to quit his evening shift-work to look after their five kids. Witkowski emerged from hospital as a mother of six and her husband had no job to go back to.
When her family went on social assistance, “we had people who had the attitude, ‘Well, what’s your problem?'” said Witkowski.
“I remember feeling not just humbled, but humiliated. Not that you could help it. It’s just the negative stigmatism tied into it.”
Her response: “No, not everyone is a deadbeat. Trust me.”
Having experienced the reality, Witkowski is concerned that so many single men are now faring so poorly.
“Running back probably 10 years ago they started to develop programs for women, but they just assume men can take care of themselves,” she said. “So that was kind of overlooked.”
About 21.5 per cent of single mothers were living below the low-income cutoff in 2009, according to StatsCan. That’s less than in the 23.4 per cent in 2008 and steep drop from the mid-1990s, when more than half of single mothers were considered to be living in poverty.
The dramatic improvement is partly because single mothers are far more active in the workforce now than 15 years ago, says Armine Yalnizyan, senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Many single moms now get divorced after spending some time in the workforce, and are able to resume working after splitting up, Yalnizyan said. Their incomes take a hit, but not so hard that they fall into poverty.
Plus, key social programs developed in the late 1990s have greatly benefited mothers, said Toronto-based social scientist John Stapleton. The benefits are usually attached to children — such as the Child Tax Benefit.
Stapleton believes child support has also improved as courts have become more vigilant, and are able to enforce guidelines and use DNA evidence to force fathers to pay more.
The job market has also helped mothers. With Canada’s economy turning toward services rather than manufacturing, low-skilled jobs often favour women rather than men, said Stapleton.
Rob Rainer, executive director of Canada Without Poverty, says the traditional skill set of men has taken a marketplace beating.
In forestry and manufacturing, for example, many jobs traditionally held by men are now automated. The Canadian economy has generated new jobs, but they’re often in the services sector, and often they’ve been given to women.
Stapleton notes — echoing Witkowski — social services tend to ignore single men.
“They just don’t get anything. They don’t get supports.”
Most benefits that single men can collect are small boutique tax credits, or welfare payments that prevent them from building up assets, said Stapleton.
And that’s where Witkowski’s experience is particularly illuminating.
Trapped in poverty, she entered the SEED Winnipeg Inc. program with a notion to start a special-events party business.
SEED provided $500 as an interest-free loan and provided courses on how to develop a business plan and personal finance.
Witkowski, with her background in financial and insurance services, knew how to handle money. “I just didn’t have any!”
Over the first year of the business, as long as Witkowski re-invested 100 per cent of her revenues back into the business her profits weren’t deducted from her social assistance.
She also benefited from a separate, matched savings program which allowed Witkowski to save one dollar and have the program contribute three dollars — again, conditional on all the savings going back into the business. She turned $1,000 in savings into $4,000 in working capital.
“It’s awesome,” said Witkowski. “Because for low-income families, you’re counting quarters to go buy milk. You’re looking for the day-old bread. It’s next to impossible to get ahead once you’re behind.”
Many jurisdictions, including Ontario, demand people applying for social assistance first sell off any assets, leaving them with no cushion and no capital — let alone helping them build up capital through innovative programs.
“You just need someone to give you that chance,” said Witkowski.
“It’s not giving a hand-out because you have to come up with the initial (dollars) for it. It’s like saying, ‘Look, we’re giving you an opportunity here, a chance.'”
Her success story in the face of a life of hard knocks doesn’t make Witkowski boastful.
“I’m just one of hundreds,” she said.
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