Karl Andrus reflects on the context in which his mother wrote A Welfare Diary and A Welfare Diary Revisited in 1991.
By Karl Andrus
Published July 31, 2017
In 1991, the Soviet Union and Apartheid were in their death throes. Brian Mulroney and Robert Bourassa continued to dance the "distinct society" constitutional jig. Mike Harris' Progressive Conservatives had not yet imposed the scorched earth policy of "common sense revolution" on Ontario. In media, Thelma and Louise famous' drive had not yet penetrated our collective consciousness.
The country was in the grip of a massive recession. Unemployment rates across Canada were skyrocketing: nationwide they sat at 10.4 percent. 2.3 million Canadians survived on the inadequate allowances paid by the government in 1991. Then as now, welfare incomes, across all of Canada fell well below the poverty line.
In Hamilton, the unemployment rates were not much better than the national average at ten percent. More telling than the unemployment rates was the fact that in the region, one in four people were on some form of social assistance.
On June 1, 1991, the Hamilton Spectator reported, "The number of people on welfare, mother's allowance, disability allowance and unemployment insurance has skyrocketed to more than 112,000, including dependents, out of a regional population of 429,000." Councillor Dominic Agostino was quoted saying, "We are really in a crisis situation." Welfare rolls surpassed the 1982 recession. Hamilton had the third highest welfare rates in Ontario, surpassed only by Toronto and Ottawa.
In short, the economic outlook for Hamilton was bleak. Despite the prevalence of suffering across the city, public and media attitudes toward social assistance remained largely negative. Paul Wilson, the Spectator's "Street Beat" columnist, published an article titled, "Sister fights to save 3 kids from vicious poverty cycle". The article documented a multigenerational welfare family of colour living in substandard housing surrounded by dirt and filth. My mother felt the tone and content of the article did not portray the family in a particularly sympathetic light.
Worse still were the responses that flooded the Street Beat answering machine, which Paul Wilson wrote about on June 11 in an article titled, "Welfare sisters draw hatred, venom". He reported: "In an instant, the StreetBeat machine was full of hate. Venom. You spit out the words. Some of you had to catch your breath, then carry on."
He went on to print quotes from some of that venom, with callers reporting on the welfare family as "...garbage. Tell them soap and water comes goddamn cheap. But they're probably sitting on their fat... eating popcorn and watching goddamn soap operas. What these two ... need is 12 inches of boot right up the..."
The machine logged 30 callers with only six readers troubled by the scene. The vitriol continued with one caller reporting, "I went through the Depression years as a teenager. I knocked on doors to get housework... Them people are so lazy. They are sleeping with every Tom, Dick and Harry.. generation to generation they're on welfare and I'm getting fed up paying taxes to support them. All we need to do is cut them off."
Another caller said, "if we stop giving welfare to people like this and force them to work, maybe things would change." Negativity wasn't limited to voicemail. Letters to the editor around the time contained such great titles as "Welfare recipients could pick up litter." And: "I guess you only get nice clothes when you're on welfare."
Even some city officials mirrored the public outcry, for example Ward 6 Alderman Vince Formosi calling for "work for welfare."
It was against this backdrop that my mother wrote a series of articles documenting and humanizing the face of social assistance in Hamilton. Her stories where published across the country through the Southam News wire service and recorded broadcast by CBC Radio.
Those articles crisscrossed the country, touching souls and changing perspectives on just what constituted a "welfare bum".
This is the first article in a series:
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