The theme of the recent United Nations International Day for the Eradication of Poverty was Dignity for All in Practice.
It raised questions about how we can change our policy practices and outcomes so people living with poverty are treated as experts.
The ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the consequences of high inflation and the Ontario government’s refusal to address deep poverty, to name just a few current realities, have resulted in anti-poverty campaigners renewing their pleas for action.
Inadequate or harmful poverty-related policies were also a theme during the Ontario election campaign in June 2022. Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner has used the phrase “legislated poverty” to point out that public policy can and does trap people in poverty.
The importance of lived expertise
“Unlegislating” poverty demands a new course of action from the government. Addressing systemic factors that cause poverty, and focusing on the expertise of people living with poverty who understand acutely how public policies fail people, are essential.
This call to action is part of an ongoing discussion about how public policy can be better developed with lived expertise.
A commitment to prioritizing lived expertise is at the heart of an ongoing research collaboration between the Guelph & Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination, and the University of Guelph’s Community Engaged Scholarship Institute and Live Work Well Research Centre.
In this collaboration, lived experts and those working towards poverty elimination are coming together to share and examine stories of poverty. A main outcome of this collaboration is a new four-part podcast series, Storied Lives: Shifting Perspectives on Poverty, that delves into the complex systemic and structural factors that keep people in poverty.
Using data gathered through focus groups with people living with poverty, the podcast series presents four composite stories: fictional narratives based on true accounts.
Each episode pairs a composite story with an interview with a notable guest who contributes additional perspectives and expertise. This method of storytelling allows space for experts, scholars and people with lived expertise to co-exist, share knowledge and, hopefully, inform public policy.
Gender and poverty
The podcast series reveals the complex webs that tangle people in poverty and the absence of appropriate policy and service responses. For example, one episode of the podcast, entitled “Old Enough to Hit,” explores how gender can shape people’s experiences with poverty:
“Between groceries and the park, I sneak to the library with the kids and piece together a resume. I get lucky and someone calls for a phone interview. They ask about my degree, ‘What took you so long to graduate? …Oh, I see …So you have a baby and a youngster at home.’ They don’t call back. Other job offers come in, but my husband gets to the phone first and I start collecting bruises.”
The episode includes an interview with Lieran Docherty, director of programs at the Woman Abuse Council of Toronto. She reminds listeners how “women and diverse groups of women especially have experienced social and economic marginalization for years and years … and that’s why women are more likely to live in poverty.”
This episode highlights how gender-aware policies — such as those that combat intimate partner violence and facilitate access to day care — are essential for addressing poverty.
Links between racism, unemployment
Another podcast episode, entitled “Paying Customers Only,” highlights the cycle of racism, unemployment, incarceration and mental health challenges. As an example of how racism and unemployment intersect, we heard:
“I find job postings, but always when I go in, a clipboard and name tag tells me — barely looking up — they aren’t hiring. One woman, she calls the cops when I point to the ‘help wanted’ sign in the window …. Sometimes I forget to change my name though. I learned I can’t sound ‘too ethnic’ when my last manager printed ‘Mike’ on my name tag …”
For some racialized people, these negative experiences happen when seeking health services, too.
Akwatu Khenti, assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, is the featured guest in the episode.
“What’s lacking for racialized people with mental health problems are services that are staffed with people of the same race because racism, for some not for all, is a key conduit for their condition.”
Khenti says that having “mental health interventions that have been culturally adapted” is an important part of the policy solution.
With the Toronto Police Services’ recent report revealing disproportionate force used on racialized people, we hope there’s a new sense of urgency in responding to the role of racism in perpetuating poverty.
Of course, activists from diverse communities have been pointing out these issues for decades. Sharing these complex lived experiences in a research-based podcast provides an additional policy advocacy tool without relying on people facing daily discrimination to repeat their stories over and over.
Storied Lives: Shifting Perspectives on Poverty highlights the need for an intersectional response — informed by the expertise of people who live with poverty — to end “legislated poverty.”
A guaranteed liveable income, paid sick days and more accessible child care are just a few bullet points on the long to-do list of much-needed policy changes.
Getting there will require listening to the expertise that comes from lived experience.