Since Bif Naked embarked on the week-long Welfare Food Challenge, many people have reached out to tell her about their experiences living in poverty.
“A lot of stories were shared,” the singer-songwriter said in an interview today (October 23).
“Many people do not live on $3 a day, they live on less. And that’s consistent over six months, nine months, a year, two years.”
The third annual challenge, which took place October 16 to 22, was organized by Raise the Rates, a coalition of organizations concerned about poverty and homelessness in the province.
Participants lived on a food budget of $21 for the week—the amount that organizers say is left over for groceries after welfare recipients pay for rent, bus tickets, and other basic expenses.
Naked’s $21 budget bought her some bananas, zucchinis, a bag of brown rice, two cans of chickpeas, lettuce, and a pint of cherry tomatoes.
She noted this wasn’t her first time subsisting on the income assistance rate—she and her band members were on welfare when they first moved to B.C. and were looking for work.
“People are victims of circumstances, and it could happen to anyone,” she said. “I think that people don’t realize how close we all are at any given time to that potential.”
One shocking aspect of the experience for Naked has been hearing misconceptions about poverty.
“I was really surprised at some of the poverty bashing that started to play out before my horrified eyes,” she recounted.
“I think that people’s misconception is that their neighbour is not on welfare—only people in one geographical area in the city are, and that’s not true.”
One of the common misconceptions, she said, is that people living in poverty choose to be poor.
Bill Hopwood, an organizer with Raise the Rates, noted he has yet to meet a single person who is on welfare out of choice.
“They’re there because of tragedy…serious injury, serious health problems, family break-up, abuse, and loss of jobs,” he told reporters at a news conference marking the end of the welfare challenge.
“They’re not things that anybody plans or sets out to have happen in their life.”
Family physician and researcher Vanessa Brcic was also among this year’s welfare challenge participants. She called the research evidence on the correlation between poverty and poor health “overwhelming.”
“Living in poverty is linked to a lower life expectancy and increased rates of every chronic disease that has been studied,” she said.
“The Canadian Medical Association in the last three years has made addressing poverty and inequities a priority issue. They communicated that priority to the federal government and I think it’s time that the B.C. government listen as well.”
Participants in the challenge, including UBC student Samantha Truong, cited impacts like low energy and social exclusion as a result of their small food budget.
“My classmates would want to grab lunch, drink coffee or something, and I wouldn’t be able to join them,” she stated. “I just kind of went my own way.”
Brcic said the experience made her realize "how both illness and obesity could result from this."
“My body was asking for more, so I ate more—of unbalanced meals that never satisfied," she said. "I had no energy for exercise or socializing, and for me, it was impossible to maintain my health and my work as a physician for this week on this little sustenance.”
Raise the Rates is calling for an increase in the welfare rate, which is $610 a month for a single, employable person in B.C.
Naked indicated she plans to continue her advocacy on the issue.
“I think the bigger picture here is how to keep the dialogue going, and how to make good use of the attention that Raise the Rates has managed to generate,” she said.