Raven Prince has a job at a bank, doesn’t collect welfare, and works hard to provide a good life for her two kids. However, during an interview in her tidy East Vancouver apartment, she told the Georgia Straight that she still senses a stigma associated with being a single aboriginal mom when she goes out with her children. She said that in some stores, she feels like she’s under surveillance.
“People are always staring,” Prince said. “I always feel singled out or something—when I’m going shopping, especially. I always feel like I have to buy certain stuff just so they don’t think less of me.”
That’s not her greatest anxiety, though. The 26-year-old single mom has been on a waiting list for more than a year for daycare for her three-year-old son, Terence. This September, she will also need after-school care for her five-year-old daughter, Tatiana, who will be starting Grade 1. She won’t find out until August if Terence has been accepted.
Prince has been able to work 22.5 hours per week at the bank because her mother has been looking after Terence and Tatiana during the day. “My mom baby-sits; I’m lucky to have her,” Prince said. “But now she’s going to go back to school in September. Now it’s a matter of finding someone who is going to watch him.”
Like Prince, thousands of single parents across the province struggle with trying to earn a decent income, finding daycare, and ensuring their kids get a good start in life. But new data from Statistics Canada show that whereas the incomes of Vancouver single fathers have increased in recent years, the incomes of single mothers are in decline. This has some women’s rights and antipoverty activists claiming that B.C. Liberal government policies discriminate against single mothers, who are among the poorest citizens of the province. In a curious twist, the premier and the attorney general were both raised by single mothers.
Prince said that her children’s father has another family and she isn’t receiving family-maintenance payments from him. Each day, she leaves her subsidized Native housing project in East Vancouver and takes the bus to work on the city’s West Side. The closest child-care centre is several blocks from her home. It makes her wish she could have attended a recent demonstration for daycare in Vancouver.
“I would love to have been at that protest, saying, ”˜Yeah, we need daycare,’” she said with a smile. “But I had to be at work. I can’t afford to take a day off.”
If there’s nobody to care for her kids, Prince might have no alternative but to go on welfare. As a single parent “expected to work” with two children, she would receive $1,036 per month in social assistance.
The current welfare rate is far lower than Prince’s annual income, which clears $20,000. It’s also significantly lower than the $1,368 per month that a single employable parent with two kids would get if the B.C. Liberal government had indexed the welfare rate to inflation, according to a welfare-advocacy coalition called Raise the Rates.
Prince said that she recently “jumped” at the chance for more hours at the bank, even though it will mean less time with her children. “I want my kids to get ahead,” she said. “I don’t want them growing up the way I did—the poverty that I had to go through. That’s why I took those extra hours.”
Parents without partners bear the brunt of policy changes
Under Premier Gordon Campbell, the B.C. Liberal government has introduced several policies to discourage single parents from collecting welfare and encourage them to find a job. Single moms and single dads are now expected to work when their child turns three, regardless of whether or not the parent has found childcare. Under the previous NDP government, single parents weren’t expected to work until their child turned seven.
A single parent with two kids in the “expected-to-work” category receives $296 less per month than a disabled single parent with two kids. The B.C. government recently introduced a rent-supplement program for parents who make less than $20,000, don’t live in subsidized housing, and who have less than $10,000 in assets. Only the working poor are eligible. This rent-supplement program is not available for those on welfare. Working poor don’t pay provincial income tax on their first $15,000 of income.
Then there’s all the paperwork for those who apply for a daycare subsidy. Prince said that in the past, she could walk down the street to a government office and fill out some forms. “Now you need a referral from your doctor or a dentist or some sort of social worker,” she said. “What if you don’t have a social worker? And you have to do this every six months. I have to take a whole day off work just so I can do this. It is a big hassle because you have to go find someone qualified to sign this. Then you’ve got to sign all the papers. Then you’ve got to fax it out. It’s a big hassle.”
The Campbell government eliminated the monthly earnings exemption of $200 for welfare recipients in 2002. This means that if single parents on welfare earn any extra income with a part-time job—and they are “expected to work”—the provincial government will deduct those earnings, dollar for dollar, from their social-assistance cheques.
Seth Klein, B.C. director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, told the Straight that B.C. is the only jurisdiction in North America that has prevented people on welfare from topping up their incomes with part-time work. The B.C. Liberal government also eliminated a monthly $100 exemption for family-maintenance payments. Now the government deducts spousal payments from welfare cheques on a dollar-for-dollar basis.
“Before 2002, it was possible for a single mother to combine welfare and other sources of income in the course of the year and actually get just above the poverty line,” Klein said in a phone interview. “You could also get $100 in the family maintenance. And you add up all those different sources, and a lot of women could just manage to nudge above the poverty line.”
Richard Chambers, spokesperson for the Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance, told the Straight that in 2001, there were 38,000 “cases” of employable single parents on welfare in B.C. This resulted in 101,000 people, including children, receiving benefits. As of this April, he said, that had fallen to 14,000 cases and 37,000 people. That’s a drop of 63 percent in both categories.
“If they’re expected to work, the government believes that full-time employment is much better than having people depend on income assistance for longer periods of time by mixing combinations of part-time work and income assistance,” Chambers said. “Full-time employment is better for the children and the parents.”
For Prince, one of the downsides of working is not participating in important events in her children’s lives. She missed Tatiana’s kindergarten sports day. “I’m going to miss her awards day,” she added.
Single moms are sometimes isolated
Another Vancouver single mother, Karen Schendlinger, told the Straight that she’s always running from one place to another to get everything done. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for fun.
“I think one of the main sacrifices that I have observed in talking to other single moms is social,” she said in a phone interview. “We don’t go out much, you know. We maybe see each other and talk to each other on the playground when we drop off our kids at school.”
Schendlinger, a library technician with the Burnaby school district, said she was able to find a two-bedroom suite in a house for $880 per month, not including utilities. She added that she feels fortunate to have landed a job that pays $40,000 per year but says she still must watch her expenditures closely. She acknowledged that prior to this job, she experienced financial challenges as a single mom, often running up large credit-card debts.
“For three years before that, my daughter and I were living with my sister,” she said. “We shared rent and expenses. That was a cost-saving measure for both of us.”
The sisters thought about buying a place, but Schendlinger said it was out of reach in today’s housing market. She also said that she knows how to conduct research, which is an essential skill for any single mother looking for child-care subsidies, daycare spaces, or even an affordable place to live. “If you don’t know how to find it, it’s really hard,” she said.
Social activist Jean Swanson spent 14 years raising two children as a single mom. In an interview with the Straight at the Carnegie Community Centre at Main and Hastings streets, Swanson spoke frankly about some of her own experiences. She said there is a big difference in the lifestyles of middle-income and low-income single moms.
“It takes time to be poor,” Swanson explained. “You don’t have a car. You walk to save bus fare for the kids. You don’t go to The Bay. You keep an eye out for rummage sales and garage sales. You sew. You don’t buy frozen lasagna, right? You cook your beans from scratch—you don’t even buy them in a can. It takes time.”
For a poor single mom, she said, entertainment involves going to the park or the library, not to places like Science World. With a laugh, she recalled once reading an ad asking people to send in their favourite stories about the aquarium. She has her favourite “single-mom aquarium story”.
Swanson’s children were around nine and 10 years old at the time. They wanted hot dogs and fries, but they also wanted to see the aquarium. There wasn’t enough money for all of this, so Swanson decided to wait outside, giving the kids strict instructions to stay together at all times after entering the facility.
Five minutes later, her children emerged from the building. “They said, ”˜We miss you, Mom,’” Swanson said fondly. “They had the hot dogs.”
Swanson, coordinator of the Carnegie Community Action Project, said the federal Liberal government’s decision to abolish national welfare standards in the mid 1990s has played a “huge, huge, huge” role in letting B.C. provide inadequate rates and deny assistance to people in need.
She said she cofounded the Raise the Rates coalition in response to government policies, which she claimed are causing homelessness, suffering, and early deaths. “Poverty is the biggest cause of poor health and early death in the world,” she said. “There is no doubt about it.”
In 1988, Swanson ran against Campbell for mayor of Vancouver. When asked what she would tell the premier if he visited the Carnegie Community Centre today, she replied, “It would probably be one of those conversations that passes in the night. He would be talking about competitiveness.”
In late May, Statistics Canada reported that half of the single-parent families in Canada earned less than $30,000 in 2005. The median total income of single mothers in Vancouver in 2005 was $27,700, down from $29,000 the previous year. The median total income for male single parents in Vancouver, on the other hand, went up from $41,900 to $45,500 over the same period.
Spokesperson Chambers said that the Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance wouldn’t comment on the recent Statistics Canada report because the information isn’t current. On April 1, single mothers who are expected to work received a $100 monthly increase in social assistance if they have one child and a $155 monthly increase if they have two children.
It was the first increase in shelter allowance since 1992. Last year, the B.C. government posted a surplus of $2.85 billion.
Poverty remains sky high for single parents
Shelagh Day, a director of the Vancouver-based Poverty and Human Rights Centre, points out that single mothers have the highest poverty rate of any group in Canada. In an interview with the Straight in a Cambie Street coffee shop, Day said that single mothers are poorer as a group than Native people and the disabled.
“Most people don’t realize that single mothers are the poorest people in the country,” Day said. “And they don’t think about the combination of social policies that puts women in that position.”
Day coauthored a 2005 report, Human Rights Denied: Single Mothers on Social Assistance in British Columbia, which stated that single mothers who work have a 35.1-percent poverty rate, compared with a 96.2-percent poverty rate among single-mother-led families with no income earner. She said that 20 percent of families are headed by single parents, which makes this a major public-policy issue.
Day also alleged that the B.C. Liberal government’s policies toward single mothers violate the British Columbia Human Rights Code and result in more child poverty. To her mind, the B.C. government’s delivery of public services, including welfare, fails to accommodate the distinctive needs and situations of families led by single mothers.
In 2003 and 2004, British Columbia ranked worst among the provinces in terms of child poverty, according to figures compiled by the Canadian Council on Social Development.
“We’ve got a rising poverty rate among single mothers in this province, while it’s falling in the rest of Canada,” Day said. “It worsened particularly in the three years between 2001 and 2004. In other words, under Campbell’s watch.”
In a speech last month at the University of Ottawa, Day said that 40 percent of Canadian single mothers and 73 percent of Native single mothers live below the poverty line. Only 15 percent of single fathers live below the poverty line, she said.
The premier himself was raised by a single mother. His mother was widowed when her husband, a UBC medical-school professor, committed suicide. During election campaigns, Campbell frequently mentions how hard his mother, Peg, worked to raise him and his three siblings. The Straight requested an interview with the premier concerning his government’s policies regarding single mothers. His office never returned the call.
“I think it’s very unfortunate that a man in the position of power that he is in—with personal experience of the kind that he has, apparently—would permit, if not foster, such social policies,” Day said. “So what can you say about this? There is a disconnect between his personal experience and what he is actually doing. You know, he’s got policies in place under his ministers and his government that are punishing single mothers. And everybody has to ask why.”
When the Straight asked Day to elaborate, she replied, “I don’t know his personal psychology. Personal psychology of politicians is not very interesting to speculate on. But I think it means that his interests are somewhere else. Who he wants to serve is some other group of people.”
Swanson had her own explanation for the premier’s policies regarding single mothers. “I think the most important thing is the class, not the family status,” she said, referring to Campbell’s West Side upbringing.
Premier was raised by a single mom
Gina Whitfield spends 15 hours per week volunteering at a Lower Mainland transition house. She told the Straight in a phone interview that the B.C. Liberal government’s welfare rates are forcing some women to remain in abusive relationships. Whitfield said women who spend time at the transition home have justified their decision this way: “Well, I’m going to get hit, but at least my kids won’t live in poverty.”
“It’s a serious consideration,” Whitfield said.
Day claimed that governments across the country are pursuing socially conservative welfare policies to undermine women’s autonomy. “I think we’re still dealing with a very deep resistance to the notion that women can make choices about leaving relationships and living on their own and having children on their own,” she said.
Not every single mother lives in poverty. Shannon Johnny is one aboriginal single mom who has beaten the odds. In an interview at a downtown coffee shop after work, she explained that she raised her 13-year-old son with help from the boy’s father. She works full-time as an executive assistant for an aboriginal child-welfare organization, owns a car, and volunteers with the Urban Native Youth Association.
“Not all of us are on welfare,” Johnny said. “We do work hard. We want to have that equal standard of living. I want the best for my son. I want to provide him with opportunity and to have what other kids have.”
Johnny estimated that she lived in 30 foster homes. She said that her mother, who had a drinking problem, was “heartbroken” when Johnny was made a ward of the court at the age of 13. Johnny doesn’t think of herself as being wealthy, but she noted that she didn’t qualify for a leisure-access card from the Vancouver park board, which provides discounted prices for swimming and skating. “I made too much money for that,” she said.
But the big picture is still fairly bleak, according to the statistics. Penny Irons, executive director of the Aboriginal Mother Centre Society, told the Straight that the single moms who come to her group’s East Vancouver centre are “extremely poverty-stricken”. She also claimed that poverty is a factor behind the high number of First Nations children who have been apprehended by the provincial government, half the total number.
“They’re on the rise for aboriginal children, while the nonaboriginal rates are going down,” she said. “There were 9,262 kids in care as of April 30 of this year. There were 4,678 aboriginal children in care. Aboriginal moms are definitely being discriminated against. It’s in the research. It’s in the numbers.”
West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund has tried to find a woman on welfare who will file a human-rights complaint against the B.C. government for discriminating against single mothers. The group’s executive director, Alison Brewin, told the Straight in a phone interview that some women chose not to be complainants because they didn’t want to be stigmatized in their own communities and create additional difficulties for themselves and their children.
“The reality is that when most of the women who thought about it went away, they would come back and say, ”˜I don’t think I can bring that on my life,’” Brewin said.
Brewin used the term “adverse-effects discrimination”, which has been recognized by the courts, to explain how the breadth of government policies violate the Human Rights Code. Everyone may be able to apply for welfare, she said, but the effect of B.C.’s policies is to discriminate against single mothers on the basis of their family status and sex.
Like the premier, Attorney General Wally Oppal was raised by a single mother. And like the premier’s staff, his office declined to arrange an interview to discuss whether he thinks his government’s policies result in adverse-effects discrimination against single mothers.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.