(Adapted from NOW Magazine, 2000-1)
When I went on a welfare diet last week, I didn’t realize just how quickly I would have to swallow my pride.
At the request of Daily Bread Food Bank, about 20 politicians, journalists and policy wonks agreed to try eating on the same budget as people on social assistance. Having preached “voluntary simplicity” for years, I figured our family of three could make do with a weekly food allowance of $49.95, the amount of a welfare cheque for three that Daily Bread said would be left after paying $690 for rent, $18 for TTC tickets, $6.60 for a basic phone, and $10.45 for laundry, personal (soap, toothpaste) and household (cleaners, toilet paper) goods.
I surveyed prices at our local food store, went home to figure out 21 meal plans that would each supply a sampling of the four basic food groups (grains, fruits and vegetables, dairy, and meat or meat alternatives), then went shopping for food that could be turned into meals costing 79 cents a serving.
On Sunday night, we explained the idea behind the welfare diet to our ten year-old, Anika, warned her that daddy would be cooking some pretty boring meals for a week, but assured her that none of us would go hungry.
On Monday morning, Anika was more nervous than I was. She wanted to know if we would have to go to the food bank. That took me back a bit. It was the first I knew that a relatively sheltered ten year-old already understood that food banks, which weren’t even invented until I was 38, were an assumed part of our social safety net. The term “food insecurity,” which refers in part to the anxiety Anika was expressing, has only been around for about ten years, half as long as food banks. We can’t deny that the Tories have taught kids a lot more about society than we ever learned.
There’s nothing to worry about, I told her. And I meant it. In fact, I was feeling ahead of the game. I was cooking up 2/3 of a cup of oatmeal in a cup of soymilk and a cup of water, to which I added banana slices and a sprinkling of raisins. With fair trade coffee for me, fair trade tea for my wife, Lori – poor people are as entitled as anyone to vote with their shopping dollars, I figured – and a small glass of milk for Anika, we came in at $1.80, 19 cents under par each.
While Anika was eating breakfast, I was making lunch. I’m sure my body language was confident because I knew we were coming in under the line again: a cheese and lettuce sandwich on whole wheat with carrot and apple sticks for all of us, and an apple just for Anika, cost $2.25, 4 cents each under budget.
Anika came over to the counter where I was working and asked which sandwich was mine and which was hers. I pointed to hers, hoping she wouldn’t see under the lettuce that she had a slice more of cheese than me or her mom. She lifted half the lettuce from her sandwich and put in on mine. You need it, she said.
Instead of hugging her, I snapped at her. You let me worry about that, I said, slamming the lettuce back on her sandwich.
I’d forgotten that my male upbringing was that close to the surface. Within ten minutes of pretending to be a welfare parent, the role-playing was over. It shatters the ego to have your kids see that you can’t cut it, and they have to take on the role of protector. For the first time, I got a sense of how “deadbeat dads” become deadbeats, fleeing their shame as much as their responsibilities.
It took a few more meals before I figured it out that I was going to be physically, as well as psychologically, deprived on my one-week stunt.
I almost held the line at dinner, with spaghetti, a can of tomatoes, three cloves of garlic, a thick slice of tofu and a glass of orange juice for Anika coming in at $2.40. Same thing the next night, with a small baked potato, a veggie dog and slice of bread.
If food and shelter were the only necessities, we could’ve made it through the week like this, staying in our $690 apartment every night to supervise homework and study self-improvement manuals, the envy of 850 million starving people around the world, the darlings of the Tories who designed this miserly budget.
But I was amazed at how quickly my needs for social engagement and dignity overrode my biological need for food and blew my meal planning to bits. By my third day, I’d overcome my lifelong hatred of arithmetic and learned to divide almost anything by 79, to get the number of meals I’d have to skip to cover the costs of a treat.
I’m inclined to blame the folks at the Daily Bread Food Bank for pointing me in the wrong direction. They told all us volunteer welfare dieters that one of the best ways to get through the week was to mooch a meal off friends. So I engineered an invitation, figuring I’d save $2.37, money left over to buy me some kind of a birthday present when I turned 58 on the second-last day of the diet.
But I was too smart by half. TTC tickets to and from our friends’ place cost $10, or 12 individual meals forgone. And a bottle of wine one step up from Entre Deux Latrines – I know now I should have brought powdered milk instead, but false pride kept me from doing the right thing — cost $8.50, another 8 individual meals forgone.
Fortunately, my mom was going to take us out for dinner for my birthday, so a $2.37 saving was in sight. And Lori had already skipped one breakfast, leaving us 79 cents ahead of the game. And we did “save” $2.37 by eating at our friends’ house.
So we only had to miss 13 meals to do penance for my miscalculation and false pride. That’s not a total disaster, I thought. I’ll skip four meals over the next four days, and nine more next week; after all, welfare checks cover a month, so I can honor the spirit of this exercize by spreading the loss over two weeks.
Which might have worked if the father of one of our best friends hadn’t died, and Lori hadn’t volunteered to bring over dinner for the entire family – a not a $2.37 dinner either. So next week, barring any further miscalculations, mishaps, false pride or naive generosity, we’re already lined up to miss 21 meals.
Since that’s a bit much to do on my own, like the four I did this week, I either play the tape of Les Miserables to Anika so she understands why I went to jail for stealing bread, or ask her to miss at least six meals.
What I told Anika last Monday is still true. We wouldn’t have to go to the food bank our first week on welfare. Just our second.
After one week and another week of penance in the gruel of hard knocks and after 25 years as a public policy wonk, I’d have to say that Tory social welfare policy fails on at least three counts.
Penny-wise, pound-foolish social welfare benefits cost the taxpayers more than they save. Though we could afford 21 meals providing the four basic food groups if we never spent a penny on treats, we could never afford the full range of nutrients and micro-nutrients that protect against chronic disease. The treatment for any given chronic disease starts at about $40,000; 79 goes into 40,000 about 500 times, so it’s not too hard to imagine that one of us would be stricken by disease before missing 500 meals.
Since time immemorial, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu tells us, people cope with poverty by treating their bodies as capital to be depreciated – in dangerous or back-breaking work or by skipping meals – not by treating their bodies as temples, or as instruments of investment in human capital. It’s the job of social welfare policy in a society that provides universal medicare to overcome that strategy for coping, among other things, by providing enough money for food.
Secondly, the level of welfare benefits imposed since 1995, since which time the costs of a nutritious food basket have gone up by about 20 per cent, grind down the esteem, pride and sociability that are essential to the empowerment of the poor. This level of social benefits will manufacture habits that flow from isolation, marginalization and exclusion, the quiet desperation of chronic poverty. It will discourage, not spur, efforts and strategies to get out of poverty.
Third, this level of social benefits creates no stimulus for the local economy, once a basic rationale for relatively humane levels of social assistance. The foods that can be afforded on a welfare diet are almost all imports; think of such staples as tuna (now ranked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a risky food because of high mercury levels) or peanut butter. So the dollars that the poor spend on food all leave the local economy, and barely a dime is spent on locally-produced or locally-processed foods. It’s the economics of biting off your nose to spite your face.