Feb 1, 2012

welfare empathy experiment

I regularly post here about the pros and cons of stimulating empathy to inspire solidarity. Here is another take.

This article ran under the headline "Welfare experiment brings tears to Surrey MLA’s eyes"

[For those not from Canada, an MLA is a member of the Assembly of the Province, in this case of British Columbia. It's like being a Representative in the State Legislature in the US. MLA Brar represents a Vancouver suburb and has gotten a ton of media attention in the Vancouver area for spending the month of January trying to get by on what as single adult gets if they are on welfare.]

"Five days into his Welfare Challenge, Surrey Fleetwood NDP MLA Jagrup Brar is looking tired.

He admitted to being in tears earlier this week.

On Thursday, he showed off where he is living and the food he has bought as he tries to live on the $610 a month a single adult receives while on social assistance.

“Living in poverty is hard and demoralizing. Looking for food makes your body tired,” said Brar, who undertook the experiment in response to a challenge by Raise the Rates, a coalition of social groups that wants the B.C. government to raise welfare payments.

On Wednesday, he was out looking for a place to stay aided by a worker from Hyland House, a Surrey-based organization that runs a homeless shelter.

Brar had put together a list of possible rooms he could rent for the $375 government housing allowance, but was shocked at what he found.

“The first house had four little rooms and was a dirty and filthy looking old house,” said Brar.

He said the room available for rent had no laundry facilities and the landlord wanted $450 a month “for a place no one would want to stay for one day.”

The next home he visited was similar.

This landlord then showed Brar another room on the side of the house.

“That was heartbreaking, shocking for me. This was a room like a closet. It was three feet wide, seven feet long with a single bed in it occupying the whole space,” he said.

“You could barely step in and go straight to your bed. There was no window. The landlord told me the person who was going to occupy that room was a patient coming from hospital after an operation.

“It was unimaginable for me to hear that people have to chose to live in those kinds of places, tears started falling out of my eyes,” he said.

This room rented for $300 a month.

“The person who showed me that closet-like room owns 50 rooms. She is making $20,000 a month on the backs of the poor of B.C. with the help of the ministry. It’s unacceptable and immoral,” he said.

Brar settled for staying in an illegal rooming house on 136A St. that is clean and well-kept and has seven other tenants. The spacious room rents for $400 a month, but he will only pay for the part of the month he will stay there.

“This is like a seven-star hotel compared to the other places,” said Brar.

On Wednesday, he went shopping for food, spending $32.87 for a variety of packaged foods, some milk, vegetables, fruit, bread and peanut butter.

Brar said he would stay in the Surrey rooming house for 16 days and then look for a place to live in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.

After other expenses, he figures he has about $67 left for food for the rest of the month.

“It’s hard for me to realize that we have 137,000 children living in poverty in this province,” he said."

- I have such mixed feelings about this. Of course he can never really "know" what it is like, and he's much more able to cope than most who are getting by on $610. For starters, he got a worker to go out and look for housing with him?! How often does that happen? And he's not recovering from illness or trauma or whatever might have pushed him on to welfare. But gripes about the dangers of appropriative empathy aside, I have been appreciating how this stunt is getting the media to pay more attention to the realities and struggles of the poor and have some real hope that it could lead to change - raising the rates for a start.


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