Amber Haug, 39, sits at a table in the basement of Tillicum Lelum Aboriginal Friendship Centre, her voice catching as she swipes at tears with her sleeve.
She’s living with her ex-boyfriend’s mother and fighting for custody of her three children in government care. She wonders if her children are better off where they are and if it’s selfish to want them back. But one thing she does know: if she had more money, they’d be at home.
Life wasn’t easy for the family living on social assistance – a reality where choices were made between paying bills or buying groceries and the places they lived were usually dives. At one house, Haug says she caught a rat the size of a dog scurrying through the kitchen. “I don’t have a great paying job. I didn’t stay in school. I didn’t go to college. I can live poor but why do my kids have to suffer?” she asked. “I know my kids go without because of my money.”
Haug’s struggles are a familiar story in a city with a chronic problem of child poverty. According to Statistics Canada’s 2011 census, more than 3,000 youngsters in Nanaimo are living in poverty – 21.3 per cent no older than six.
The number is up from 18.5 per cent in 2006.
In fact, recent statistics show there are more children and youths living below the poverty line than any other demographic in Nanaimo and our numbers are higher than the provincial average.
Advocates say something needs to be done.
Children in poverty not only face challenges around health and education, but risk becoming impoverished themselves.
Tammy Wylie, community development manager for Tillicum Lelum, said children learn from what’s modelled to them, including coping methods of addiction, depression and violence.
Aboriginal families in poverty continue to be affected by colonization and residential schools “because we haven’t been doing a very good job of interrupting that cycle,” Wylie said.
“If you don’t get to see the norm and all you see and that becomes your norm, it’s really hard to have a different picture or even to have hope that it’s going to be different for you.”
There’s also a poverty of expectations, says John Horn, the city’s social planner.
Growing up in a middle-class family, Horn said there was the expectation he’d go to university, get a white-collar job, read books and explore the world. But as a social worker in Nanaimo, he noted parents in poverty didn’t set the same bar.
“They didn’t expect their kids were going to go to university, or, heck, even finish high school … and they certainly didn’t expect their kids were going to go and change the world –that they were going to be the next IBM CEO or they were going to invent penicillin,” he said. “So the children grew up with these really diminished expectations of them … if you could just get by and get a welfare cheque when you are 19 seemed to be, in some cases, that was the expectation and children have a remarkable way of living up to your expectations.”
Those familiar with child poverty agree it’s a challenging and complex issue to tackle, with families experiencing the lack of income differently and no single cause. Some suggest there’s the need for provincial and national help.
B.C. income assistance rates, for example, have been flagged as a hardship for families.
Island Health shows just over six per cent of children were living on income assistance in Nanaimo in 2011 compared to 3.4 per cent in B.C. But despite higher costs of living, income assistance rates haven’t increased since 2007, according to a 2014 poverty report card by First Call B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition.
“Income assistance rates, yes, that’s a start, to raise the rates, but I see it as the, you can teach a man to fish or give him a fish,” Wylie said. “If we just keep giving fish nobody is learning anything. There’s some skill building that needs to happen and that’s the prevention piece.”
Horn said he’s learned the issue of poverty wasn’t just about a lack of money, it was the relationship to money and other parts of peoples’ lives that were broken. He isn’t convinced raising welfare rates will solve the problem.
“Some people would say that’ll resolve … everything,” he said. “Well that’s what they thought when they introduced income assistance in the ’60s, is how if everyone has a guaranteed basic income then we won’t have any poor people.
“Well, we still have poor people.”
Breakfast programs help children focus on school is the next story in the series.