Bif Naked: The Welfare Food Challenge reveals classism in Vancouver

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      Welfare sucks. Don’t misunderstand, it is wonderful that this type of funding is available to help people. Of course and I am grateful for social assistance in this society. But it sucks to have to be on it, at all, never mind at the current rates which are actually far below the poverty line.

      I had to utilize welfare myself, as a young person, when my first band, Gorilla Gorilla, relocated to Vancouver armed with our skateboards, our demo tape, and our dreams.

      Welfare enabled me to find housing and secure employment. Within just a couple months, I started to work, my life progressed, and I was able to discontinue social assistance. The rest, as they say, is history.

      But, what if I didn’t find my dishwashing job? Or what if I was unable to work, say, if I had a seizure disorder, or if I were in a car accident? Or what if I was in a domestic abuse situation where my leg was broken and I could not look for a job for a few weeks? What if I had small children and no childcare? What if I had debilitating depression and could not access care or mental health support? Or what if no one would hire me?

      Those are only a few examples. There are as many reasons for a person needing support as there are people on assistance. In British Columbia, that means hundreds of thousands of people on temporary assistance, disability assistance, or who are waiting to qualify. To receive welfare in B.C., a person really has to be virtually destitute, and that is the truth.

      The Welfare Food Challenge aims to demonstrate the reality of living on the amount an individual receives: $610 for one month. Let that sink in. For. The. Month.

      This is supposed to cover everything, including: housing, food, personal hygiene, clothing, household supplies, and, as they are required to look for work, transit, and a cell phone—yes, a cell phone; it’s 2015 and there are no payphones, remember?

      Are you still with me? While you consider your own mortgage or rent and sip coffee in one of Vancouver’s latest cool boulangeries and continue reading this (which I am deeply grateful for, so thank you for staying with me) here is a real teeth-kicker:

      The City of Vancouver found that the average rent of an SRO (which stands for “single-room occupancy”) is now $450.00 a month. To give you more perspective: the provincial government’s shelter allowance portion of welfare is just $375.00 a month.

      The reality is, if you or I or our mothers were on welfare right now in B.C., we could not afford shelter. Really.

      Then, with the remainder, there’s damage deposit (approximately $20 for an SRO), bus tickets ($21), the cheapest cell phone one can find that still works ($25), and personal hygiene and laundry ($10). It totals at about $526.00.

      This leaves just $84.00 for food for a month.

      Ladies, gentlemen, and everyone, that is about $21 per week.

      Thus, Welfare Food Challenge participants live on only the food they can purchase with $21 for a week.

      Food for the week.
      Bif Naked

      Last year, I tried to be a pragmatic vegan eater, and purchased a bag of brown rice, two cans of no-name chickpeas, seven bananas, seven zucchinis, two heads of lettuce, one bag of spinach, and one container of cherry tomatoes. I ran out of bananas by the third day, zucchini by the fifth day, and by the last day I was constipated—from all the rice, something I don’t normally eat, having actually been a raw-food vegan for almost 10 of my 20 years as a vegan—and had a migraine.

      This year, I chose basically the same things (because my eating has not deviated) with the exception of the rice (constipating) and lettuce (too expensive). I replaced these items with four eggplants, which I could quarter and eat with my nightly chickpeas-and-zucchini combo. The bananas and spinach were for my morning smoothies. As in previous years, I ran out of food, again leaving me with half a banana and a quarter cup of chickpeas for my last two days. Brutal.

      This year, still on cancer medication (which I could not afford on welfare as myparticular care is no longer covered by MSP—long story) and in full menopause since I was 37, my emotional state turned to complete garbage. I found myself bit teary and overwhelmed at the slightest of things, all of the time. I felt lousy, to say the least. And very hungry for things I took for granted, like apples, celery, juices, and coffee.

      If my digestive tract, dopamine and serotonin depletion, and headaches were not bad enough, the sudden onslaught of derogatory messages on my social media pages was.

      It was astonishing to read all the messages dismissing, degrading, and downright bashing poor people. Of course, there were also many positive messages. But why do haters feel the need to yell their abuse? My heart broke. I was devastated.

      Not for what they were saying to me. (Things like “Shut the fuck up and Go back to your tour bus, Whore.”, “Why don’t you give them your millions, you loser has-been cunt.”, or my favourite, “You should have died of cancer, one less person to be a bleeding heart for all the junkies and hookers on the street.” , to cite just a few examples.) It was the hundreds of comments about poverty and the poor that made me cry. Literally.

      “They are all lazy, getting a handout from my tax money!,” read one. “Why should I give them any handouts? They just spend money on cigarettes and alcohol,” a mother of two wrote.

      Or, as one man said, “I work hard for my money. They are lazy.” Or, “They get too much from the Government, already. Get a fucking job!”

      It was a glimpse into what this society, what our society, believes about poor people. I was shocked. In fact, the more questions I asked, the more I discovered that people generally are classist and racist. Last year, I even had a total falling out with a long-time friend upon discovering they were secretly classist and bigoted and resented my involvement with the Welfare Food Challenge. She believed the dumbest shit, and was unmoved by my efforts to dispel myths.

      Some of those misconceptions include:

      • People on welfare are lazy. (Not true.)
      • It is easy to get welfare (Not true. It is difficult for most people to qualify.)
      • People can access food banks easily. (Not true for everyone.)
      • Homeless people are all drunks or drug addicts. (Not true.)

      I had to stand up and speak up about this.

      I could not sit by and let people talk badly about the blameless people I knew and shame them for being on welfare. The fact is that most people on welfare have a serious disability due to an illness or an accident, or they are fleeing abusive situations or are suffering long-term unemployment. People are on welfare due to misfortune. And misfortune can strike almost any one of us. I had to try to change people’s minds.

      What is a person supposed to do?

      I have a big mouth. Not just according to my late father, a dentist, either. It’s actually my job.

      Joining the Welfare Food Challenge again this year is something I was looking forward to. I planned my travel schedule around it. Is it a publicity stunt?

      Not for me, of course. But hopefully it draws attention to the hundreds of thousands of British Columbians living well below the poverty line, trying to survive on welfare.

      Along with hundreds of other Welfare Food Challenge participants, I am indeed trying to raise awareness about the plight of our poor, to promote understanding, and to educate the public to dispel the myths about welfare and welfare recipients. The idea is to encourage change and to try to get the attention of those with power to make those changes: your provincial government.

      As a society, we are judged on how we treat animals, the poor and the sick, and our seniors. And we should be.

      Blaming poor folks is not the way to express the need for change. Really, fault lies with the government, which should be ashamed for imposing such poverty on people who through misfortune are unable to have a job.

      Spread the word. Speak up for others and join me in writing letters and signing petitions to your government. Please go to www.raisetherates.org and be the change.

      Bif Naked is a recording artist and writer who participated in this year's Welfare Food Challenge.

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