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Kendall Worth: Organizing people on income assistance is easier said than done

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KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Financially better off working people who read my stuff in the Nova Scotia Advocate often tell me that they do not understand why income assistance recipients I write about are complaining about social isolation in the first place. 

They are especially puzzled when it comes to people on income assistance who also work part time. “Don’t you have anyone like any of your co-workers through your work who you could consider a social contact or friend,” they ask.

During these same conversations one type of part time job comes up especially,  where income assistance recipients work 17.5 hours a week and they get income assistance supplementing their incomes. These people sometimes even belong to a union!  

By the way, I don’t want to mention the type of employment I am talking about here, but it is a type of employment that is well respected by the public and these income assistance recipients who work there are also union members.

“Do you know that social isolation is something they can talk to their union reps about,” they ask. “Why not become part of a union social committee or speak with a counselor who works through an employee assistance program?” 

I reply, “It is my understanding that the union is there to protect your job. The union is not there as a tool to keep you out of social isolation outside of your work. Could you elaborate on how that would work?”

“Well, we read your stuff, and first of all we want you to know that the lives of us financially better off working people is not always about going out to places like restaurants, the movies, etc. either,” they reply. 

Then they say, “but yes, being members of unions and social committees is an important reason why we maintain healthy friendships within our communities.”

“If not through the union you need to better organize yourselves if you want to improve things for people on assistance,” they say. 

Anyways, their answers gave me some food for thought on this topic poverty and unions and social committees.

I mean, do not get me wrong, unions and their social committees can be a great thing. In workplaces unions advocate for greater equality as well as higher wages. 

Of course we must remember that only a few lucky welfare recipients are part of a union. In some of these part time jobs however you work on your own and hardly ever see your co-workers. Other co-workers are believers in the welfare stigma.

The idea of forming a union to represent welfare recipients is something to look at, considering how complex the issues are that welfare recipients in Nova Scotia face.  

However, organizing people who use food banks and soup kitchens will be easier said than done. People who usually go to these places are not friends with each other outside of these places.

Kendall Worth is an award-winning anti-poverty activist who lives with disabilities and tries to make ends meet on income assistance.

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One Comment

  1. It’s a bit ludicrous for middle class workers to expect or hope that the unemployed and under-employed, or those on social assistance, should be able to organise themselves to demand basic rights, or to form social groups that protect against social isolation. Folks on the tougher end of the economic spectrum are barely keeping a roof over their heads and food on the table; indeed, many aren’t in a position to even meet these basic needs. When one looks at the amount of time and energy the most disadvantaged in society must expend just to meet basic survival needs it becomes clearer that they have no time or energy left to develop or organise social groups that might elevate their sense of belonging and place in society. Indeed, these social connections are luxuries they cannot afford. (See Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.)Traditionally, committed people in the middle class dedicated to issues of poverty — social workers, church workers, social activists — attempted to bridge the gap and meet the needs of the most disadvantaged. It would seem that if there still exists some sort of banner or cause to elevate the poorest in society today, that cause would be a Basic Universal Income. Today’s shrinking middle class would be wise to assertively and aggressively push for this basic human right. In a few short years, they may in fact be in need of such security themselves.

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