Feature - As Costs Rise, It is Harder for Those Who Rely on a System that is in Place to Help

With temperatures dropping and the days of December bringing us that much closer to Christmas, it can be a difficult time for those living on social assistance, including one Outlook woman and her two young girls.

Angelica is a 31-year old single mother raising two daughters, ages 7 and 5. Originally from British Columbia, she has lived in this area since 2011, joining her parents who moved to Saskatchewan more than a decade ago. “I stayed in Victoria when they moved out here,” she said. “I was 18 and I had a decent job so I decided to stay.” But that changed in 2011 when the job came to an end and she made the decision to move here.

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She lived with her parents in Hawarden for a time and then moved to Elbow where she found work and had her first child. A move to Kindersley was next, followed by the birth of her second daughter. But the need to remove herself from a relationship there brought her to Outlook in 2014 and into a house with the Outlook Housing Authority which she and her children continue to call home.

As much as she wishes it could be different, job losses have put Angelica into a situation where she has had to apply for social assistance, just at a time the program was underdoing significant changes, and she insists those changes are making it increasingly difficult to get by each month.

“It’s been so hard. Very, very hard,” she said, describing not only accessing the program but trying to live and raise her daughters on what is provided. “I was on it before, a few years ago, when it was called the Saskatchewan Assistance Program. So what they did then was pay rent directly, paid my utilities directly and then gave me $250 to live off of. I got my child tax credit too, so that was fine then. But now on this new program they give you a lump sum that is for rent and all the bills, and whatever is leftover is what I get to live off of.”

The new program, called Saskatchewan Income Support, was introduced in July 2019 as an initiative to restructure a system that was described as outdated. Clients are now responsible for ensuring rent and utilities get paid, rather than having direct payments made. The goal, according to Social Services Minister Paul Merriman, is to increase independence amongst those who are clients. But the problem for Angelica is that the increases in utilities are squeezing her budget tighter and tighter and leaving little for other household expenses. “Those bills are obviously going up and now with winter I’m left with very little or I just don’t have enough to cover it all,” she explained. “In the summer time it was okay because the heat wasn’t on but now with power and energy and keeping my house warm every little bit adds up.”

Under the structure of the new program, any increases need to be absorbed within the lump sum clients are given. “It’s hard,” Angelica reiterated. “Once rent and utilities are paid it’s leaving me with less. The old program was working a lot better because at least I knew that I would have $250 that I could use for groceries or whatever I needed. Now every increase is leaving me with less.” Her concern extends beyond herself to others on this new program who may have difficulty handling how the benefits are paid. “I feel bad for people with addiction issues. It’s a trigger for them getting a lump sum of money so they’re not paying their rent. It’s not working.”

Angelica is familiar with the former program, having been on it for just over three years. But in 2017 she got a fulltime job and was thrilled to be off assistance. “I was so proud of myself because it had been 3 ½ years that I’d been on it.” Unfortunately, the place she worked ran into financial problems and she was forced to find something else. She did, and was optimistic about how things were going until that place unexpectedly closed. She was out of the province when it happened. “I was working,” she explained. “I had money so I went to be the maid of honor at my best friend’s wedding. That’s when I got the phone call from my mom that the restaurant is now closed and we don’t have a job.”

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When she returned she looked for employment but has been unsuccessful and things are further complicated by the costs of childcare. “I still owe money at the daycare because I lost the job. I couldn’t pay for it and everything got to be too much. I was stuck. I had no other option. I had to go on assistance again.”

The government describes the new Saskatchewan Income Support program as a simpler, client-friendly plan but that has not been Angelica’s experience. “I applied at the end of July and was approved and then not. They wanted bank statements and they saw that I had been earning money and told me I shouldn’t be applying, but I wasn’t making that money anymore.” On the former program she had a caseworker who was familiar with her file, but now speaks with whoever answers the phone. In an attempt to get information Angelica called numerous times but kept getting the message that the call volume was too high and to try again later. “One day I phoned 73 times. It took me six hours to get through and then you’re told that you are caller 19. I was so frustrated.”

“You get judged,” she remarked. “People judge you when you’re on assistance. I want to be strong about it and say I don’t care what people think but it’s hard. I’m 31. If a job was available, if child care was available things would be so different. It’s not like I want to be in this situation. I don’t.”

In the meantime, Angelica tries to stretch her dollars as far as she can. They eat a lot of macaroni and cheese, Ichiban noodles and buy items on sale. “You can’t necessarily eat healthy when you don’t have that much money. Things like cucumbers and apples are too expensive. I can’t afford that.” She tries to get six meals out of a family pack of ground beef and what they eat one night will be turned into a soup the following night. She said the days from the 5th of the month until the 15th are the toughest. “This is the time of the month we struggle most,” she says, “because it’s between waiting for the child tax credit and the next food hamper.”

Although she would be okay with eating only once or twice a day, she struggles to ensure her girls are adequately fed. “It’s the school lunches too, that’s a big stress for me. I don’t sleep well at night. In the last few months my depression and anxiety has really gone up a lot because I’m stressing constantly about what I’m going to feed my kids. It’s them I’m worried about. No one wants to send their child to school with half a lunch.”

She truly appreciates the local help she is given. “I am so thankful they are so great at the housing authority. Any other landlord would have kicked us out but they work with us.” She is also thankful for the help she gets from the Food Bank, and not just for the hampers. “Thank goodness for the Food Bank,” she remarked. “Last month there were two bags full of toques, neck warmers and mittens that somebody had handmade. All I could think was thank you so much.” She needs boots and ski pants for her children, something she feels would have been easier to obtain on the old program. “There used to be extra funding for school supplies or a winter coat if you needed it. Sure, they would take that amount off of the next cheque but at least you had it when you needed it. But thanks to the Food Bank we each got a toque and neck warmer.”

Angelica is more fearful than hopeful for the future. “Everything’s going up. Water, sewer, everything. It makes me want to crawl into a hole and start crying because every extra $10 is an extra $10. Over the course of the year those increases mean money that I could have used for food or clothes. I like to be able to treat my kids and do things with them but we can’t do anything like that. We just don’t have the money.”

But her fears for the future haven’t stopped her from holding on to some dreams. “I’d like to win the lottery,” she said with a laugh, “but what I’d really like is to increase my schooling and get myself a decent job that could be a career so I could have a steady income. I want my children to get a good education and have the opportunity to go to postsecondary school. I want them to have everything I didn’t have.”       

Heading into the Christmas season can add extra pressure for all those living on lower income. “I want to make Christmas as best as I can for my girls,” Angelica remarked. “They love it and I love it and I keep saying to them it isn’t all about the gifts. We talk about the smells and lights and sounds and everything, but it’s stressful.” She has been able to acquire some free ornaments and decorations so the house looks Christmassy and that makes them happy. In the mornings they listen to Christmas music and the girls have been enjoying looking for Elf on the Shelf each day. “I try to make it the best happy time that I can with what we have.”

It’s why she is so grateful for the Outlook and District Food Bank and the Secret Santa program. She used the program a few years ago and was overwhelmed by the generosity of the community. She describes being in tears and completely shocked after being given gifts for her girls, wrapping paper and tape, and an entire Christmas meal. “I came home after picking that up and just broke down,” she said. “I was just in awe. It was amazing to know that there are people out there who really do want to help people in my situation.” She has applied to be part of the program again this year and remarked, “It’s great that the town does that because otherwise I don’t know what we’d be doing for Christmas this year. Probably not much.”

Angelica tries to keep the stress of the situation from affecting her girls. “Every once in a while the girls say something, but they’re pretty good. I think they kind of get it, at least as much as they can for their age,” she said. She is teaching them to appreciate what they have. “We have a roof over our head and there is food in the cupboard so we can’t complain there. There’s a lot of people in the world that don’t, so I’m thankful for that.”

© The Outlook

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