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) is well-known in Kingston, partly because of long-term part-time job that has put her in contact with many people in the city. Sophie agreed to be part of the film but only if her face wasn’t shown, so that her daughter would not be affected. She didn’t want her daughter to be embarrassed, feel poor, or have to explain anything to her friends. Her daughter often asked if they were poor or could afford various things; Sophie would emphasize how much they had in comparison to many others and how fortunate they are. More than anything, Sophie’s daughter 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, where she felt that she could be herself more easily, but their current location provided better access to parks, schools, bus line and various other amenities. Sophie worked hard to ensure that her daughter was able to participate in as many school activities as possible and in high school, her daughter was on a school sports team.
Sophie grew up in the suburbs of Toronto in a middle class family that had “lots of problems.” She came to Kingston to study at Queen’s and to get a “fresh start,” away from her family. While an undergraduate, she suffered the first of many episodes of severe depression that required hospitalization. While in hospital the first time, the staff suggested that she go on social assistance temporarily, but 15 or 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 her coping mechanisms was smoking. At the time of filming, she had quit but was missing it terribly.
Smoking is like your best friend, honestly, it’s like, when you stop smoking, then you don’t have somebody just to relax with, take a break with, like even just sit there with your thoughts. It’s like, you know, like losing a friend when you quit, when you quit smoking (…) It makes you feel less lonely, less isolated. It’s not, …. it seems, it seems silly but… it seems, it’s such a small thing, but it means, it means a lot.
Sophie described herself as having had to learn how to become 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 there was never enough and there were always unexpected expenses for school or utilities. For Sophie, having a couple of dollars in her pocket at the end of the month was a really good month. Most months, she was out of cash by the 10th or 11th because everything had gone to bills. The pressure and anxiety of having not having enough money left her with a sense of desperation that was hard for her to put into words. She didn’t expect anyone who had never been there to understand, but she asked that others not be so quick to judge her and others who lived in poverty.
From Sophie’s perspective, there was no way 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 because she was on social assistance. As she said “they want a certain kind of tenant and you just don’t fit that” and whether is it legal or not, they can find ways to refuse to rent to those on social assistance. 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 also 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 unreported income as a way to try to get by.
Sophie yearned to be off social assistance, but she found it difficult to find work that paid well enough and provided benefits. The dental and health benefits of being on social assistance were indispensable. Her medication, essential for her health, cost between $300 and $400 per month. The medication enabled her to start thinking about her future, something she described as previously being “a luxury,” instead of day-by-day, or hour-by- hour. After working full-time on contract with a large Kingston employer, by 2013, she had managed to secure full-time, permanent work with the same employer, in a job that used some of her many skills and talents. Her daughter had earned a scholarship to attend university and was doing well