Sophie is a thoughtful, curious, well-spoken, friendly woman who has done everything in her power to give her only daughter a “good life” and a reasonable standard of living. Sophie (a pseudonym) agreed to be filmed only if her face wasn’t shown, so that her daughter would not feel embarrassed or have to explain anything to her friends.
Sophie’s daughter, Lucy (a pseudonym), often asked her if they were poor; in response, Sophie would emphasize how fortunate they are. More than anything, Lucy wanted a house with a backyard, the norm in the upper middle class neighbourhood where they lived. However, this was impossible for Sophie to provide. She said she felt more comfortable in the poorer neighbourhood where they once lived, but their current location provided better access to parks, schools, bus line and various amenities.
Sophie grew up in the suburbs of Toronto in a middle class family that had “lots of problems.” As an undergraduate at Queen’s, she suffered the first of many episodes of severe depression that required hospitalization. On her first hospitalization, a staff person suggested she go on social assistance as a temporary measure; 16 years later, she was still struggling to get off social assistance, even while working two or three part-time jobs. She described being on social assistance as isolating, lonely, stressful, humiliating and stigmatizing, with little support to get off.
One of Sophie’s coping mechanisms was smoking. At the time of filming, she had recently quit but was missing it terribly.
Smoking is like your best friend, honestly. When you stop smoking, then you don’t have somebody just to relax with, take a break with, even just sit there with your thoughts. It’s like losing a friend when you quit smoking (…) [Smoking] makes you feel less lonely, less isolated. It’s such a small thing, but it means a lot. It’s not just an addiction, a waste of money, it’s…it’s a coping mechanism.
Sophie described herself as a “financial wizard,” juggling her part-time jobs to maximize her earned income without having her social assistance cut back, and budgeting two or three months in advance to make sure there was enough for everything. But, despite her best efforts, there was never enough and there were always unexpected expenses for school or utilities. For Sophie, it was a victory to have a couple of dollars in her pocket at the end of the month. Most months, she was out of cash by the 10th or 11th. The pressure and anxiety of incessant poverty left her with a sense of desperation that was hard to put into words. She expected that only those who had lived through something similar could understand; she asked that others not be so quick to those who lived in poverty.
From Sophie’s perspective, it is impossible to live on social assistance and have a good life. She described many difficult aspects of living on social assistance: dentists and optometrists who refused her service; employers who refuse to hire her; and landlords who refused to rent to her. As she said “they want a certain kind of tenant and you just don’t fit that.” She spoke of former Premier Mike Harris, who cut social assistance rates by almost 22% in 1995, one of his first acts as premier, and the damage he caused by bashing those on welfare. The 1995 welfare cuts also included cuts to health care, including dental and vision care, and for transportation costs. The Harris changes incorporated a much more punitive approach; for example, anyone caught not reporting income would be banned for life from further social assistance. And yet almost everyone on social assistance had income they didn’t report in an effort to “get by.”
Sophie yearned to be off social assistance, but it was almost impossible to find work that paid well enough and provided benefits. The dental and health benefits of being on social assistance were indispensable. Her essential medication cost between $300 and $400 per month. The medication enabled her to start thinking about her future, something she had previously experienced as “a luxury.” After working full-time on contract with a large Kingston employer, she had managed to secure full-time, permanent work in a job that used some of her many skills and talents.