A British Columbia MLA recently completed his month on welfare. Jagrup Brar, the MLA for Surrey-Fleetwood, and a member of the New Democrat Party, left his middle-class lifestyle behind to get in touch with the poorest of the poor. Starting on New Year’s Day, he had $610 to live on throughout the month. That’s the amount social assistance provides to single adults who are considered employable.
He spent the latter-half of January living in the notorious Eastside, Vancouver’s skid row, and after rent and public transit, only $108 was left to cover his food expenses for the month. He ran out of money a few days early. The last of his cash went to some bread and eggs. When the month ended and his self-imposed challenge was complete, he was able to return to his Surrey home, a good 15 pounds lighter and “a changed man,” by his own admission.
“I was full of fear about what it would be like living in the Downtown Eastside with all the stereotyping I had in my mind about people here. But the experience has completely changed my perspective. These people are so caring. They understand the pain and suffering of life here.”
Of course, his new neighbors knew who he was and the experiment he was doing. They also understood how difficult it must be for someone who hadn’t experienced it before. “They knew that I am an MLA, that I am not poor, but they understood what I was doing and knew this month I had no money. These people are poor themselves yet they each wanted to give me $5.”
It’s not surprising that a BC politician, if anyone, would perform this remarkable experiment. Poverty and homelessness have been a major part of the public discourse in that province for years. The 2010 Olympic Games, hosted by Vancouver, were marred by massive street protests. Protestors disagreed with the province and city taking on expensive hosting duties rather than investing in much-needed social programs.
Years ago, a young man took on a similar kind of challenge. He was going to literally walk out the door with the clothes on his back, and, within one year, get a job, an apartment, a car, just to prove it could be done. His rules were that he didn’t touch his savings account, he couldn’t mention his college education. The point was to see whether it was possible for anyone to pick themselves up by their bootstraps. He wrote a book about his experiments which made quite a splash (if anyone knows the title, please leave it in comments).
The problem with his experiment is he knew exactly what steps to take, how to make a good impression, etc. He may not have mentioned his degree, but he had all the cultural capital he’d gained from it. He didn’t talk like a guy from the streets, a grade eight drop-out, a person whose parents were alcoholics or drug addicts. He still had a lifetime of experience and training that most people living on the street don’t have. His roadmap to success doesn’t apply to most of them.
Brar, by contrast, didn’t get a job or otherwise try to improve his financial situation. He was trying to figure out how easy it was to live on social assistance when you don’t have any other options. Even knowing he only had to stick it out for 30 days, it was incredibly challenging. Someone as educated as him still ran out of money, thus suggesting it’s not as simple as “being responsible” or “planning ahead.”
For that matter, it ought to be easier for him to stick to a severe budget, since he can always remind himself, “only X more days.” But with somebody for whom this is life, day in and day out, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. The impulse to buy a few beers after a tough week must be more difficult to resist. All of which is to say we are likely underestimating the emotional toll of true poverty.
I wish a conservative politician would be so brave as to put themselves out there like Mr. Brar. It might make them reconsider their belief that poor people are just lazy, or the fantasy that they are living the high life on the public teat. I really don’t think anyone would choose this life if they could see a way out of it.
Photo credit: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum