featured Poverty

Kendall Worth: Nova Scotia ACORN also fights for people on income assistance

Kendall Worth interviews Janice, a long time ACORN member who's on income assistance.
ACORN rally at Province House earlier this spring. Photo Robert Devet

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – I recently learned that there is a union here in Nova Scotia that fights for things like raising the income assistance rates and dignity for income assistance recipients. This union is called Nova Scotia ACORN.

The two major concerns that Income Assistance recipients I spoke with themselves have expressed about this idea of a union are:

1 – Some people on income assistance I spoke with have expressed that they cannot afford union dues even if it was only as little as $5 or $10 per month. Every dollar counts towards living expenses and food plus personal hygiene products when you receive income assistance, they say.

2 – Some income assistance recipients say that the real problem is the stigma they face, and a union can’t fix that.

I had conversations with two different people from ACORN, and I actually interviewed Janice, who had a lot of positive things to say about her overall experiences as an ACORN member.

Janice has been an ACORN member for 4 years. Janice is a single mom who is on social assistance herself. She lives in public housing  and is very active in her ACORN chapter. She describes her experiences of being an ACORN member as nothing but positive.

Here is the interview in full.

So ACORN advocates for raising the income assistance rates, affordable housing, affordable internet, etc. Also, ACORN is a union for people living in poverty from what I understand. Can you tell me a bit about your experiences with ACORN, including about your experiences of getting to know the community of ACORN members?

I’ve been a member of ACORN for four years. I live in public housing and a few years back someone knocked on my door to talk about things I want to see changed in my community. I’ve been involved ever since. It wasn’t until the pandemic that I became very active, now I go to every meeting and as many actions as I can, and I was elected the co-chair of the Halifax-Peninsula Chapter this past summer.

As the co-chair I’m very active in my chapter and talk to community members quite a bit, as well as members from outside Nova Scotia. I also do a lot of outreach with the people in my neighbourhood, we flyer and talk to people to get them engaged and thinking about how we can get organized to fight for better conditions for the people in public housing and for low-income families in general.

Some of the people I advocate for through my journalism in the Nova Scotia Advocate are scared to join something like ACORN for two reasons: They don’t want to come forward about their situation because of things that have happened to them through Community Services. They also think the stigma they suffer coming from well off people is a problem a union cannot fix. Where does ACORN stand on these issues?

We definitely want to combat everything that goes along with being low-income in this province. Our main focus is making things materially better for people by fighting for higher income assistance rates and better housing conditions for people with disabilities or low-income families or tenants, but to do that we also need to combat the things that make people scared to speak up. People on welfare and disability are looked down upon by people who are more well off and by sharing who we are and demanding better for ourselves we are fighting that stereotype.

All of our members are working class and low-income people. Because our members come from all walks of life and are in different situations we’re able to support each other and give people the strength to be able to speak up on these issues without being afraid that the people in their community are going to judge them.

We’re not advocates, we’re people who are speaking about our lived experiences, and by speaking up and sharing our stories we’re showing people that people on welfare aren’t the stereotype they think. It’s important to have higher income people speaking up about these sorts of issues, but until people who are on income assistance start leading the conversation the people who have this stigma are always going to think that’s what we are and they’re going to think we need other people speaking for us.

In reality, people on assistance and disability are smart, capable people and community members like everyone else and we deserve to live with dignity and respect, and it’s sad that we have to fight so hard for people to acknowledge that. 

ACORN does charge a $15.00 a month membership fee. Many income assistance recipients cannot afford this. Does ACORN waive this fee for those who cannot afford it?

I’m on income assistance and I’ve been a dues paying member for four years, it’s definitely a small sacrifice, but there’s a lot of power in being a part of a community organization that’s actually owned by the community. It also puts my mind at ease knowing I have a place to turn to for help when needed.

We really need dues to organize and do the work that we do and stay independent, but we also don’t want money to be a barrier to people getting involved. We have lots of provisional members who don’t pay dues but still come out to events and meetings and participate.

Would you say the number of ACORN membership who are working poor outnumber income assistance and CPP disability recipients who are members?

All of our membership is low- and moderate-income people, and that means that a lot of members are working class, a lot of members are on IA and disability, or on pension, and most of us have either been on assistance or are one missed paycheque away from being on assistance. We probably have more people who are working than people who are on assistance, but it really depends on the neighbourhood or the current makeup of the people who come out to meetings and events.

What’s most important is that the people who speak on our campaigns and represent the organization are people who are actually affected by these policies, so our Income Assistance campaign demands all come from our members who are on assistance and the people who are in the press talking about it and representing that campaign are all people on assistance and disability. 

All the members support each other and all the campaigns, but we don’t have members who aren’t on assistance demanding things for people who are, it’s just not how we operate. Just like we wouldn’t have people in their twenties making demands and running the campaign for higher pensions, you want the seniors to be the face of that. That’s why we don’t just organize one group of people, because all low- and moderate-income people are affected by all of these issues and we all need to come together and support each other and add our voices to these fights.

You can find Nova Scotia ACORN on Facebook, and on the web. Questions? Email halifax@acorncanada.org.

See also: ACORN rallies for People’s Platform as legislature reopens

See also: Nova Scotia Budget 2021: ‘Historic’ increase promises slightly less starving for income assistance recipients

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