Recently I was sharing the same physical space as a colleague who was interviewing a person on social assistance who had just completed a course he had facilitated. The purpose of this interview was in part to look at the next steps the person might take.
Taking steps implies of course that there is movement, direction; that the person is headed somewhere and the steps laid out move the person closer to their eventual goal. What was interesting in this particular interview was the person’s apparent absence of a desire to do much about their present status.
The workshop had focused on building some job interview, self-confidence and personal confidence skills and looking at things from the employers point of view. What she primarily got out of it was other things. She mentioned the workshop had been very positive; she’d met some new people, met some friends from past groups and really enjoyed the social aspects of the course.
She didn’t state or display any urgency to leave social assistance, there was no expression of embarrassment or shame which some people share at these meetings. However, there was also no attitude of entitlement or bravado in her words or body language either. In fact, she was just acting and speaking very matter-of-factly. She was comfortable; it struck me as I listened that she viewed her situation as normal living. It was if she never wondered or questioned where the funds came from that she was in receipt of monthly, and had no real drive to change her present circumstances.
After she departed both he and I spoke together of her situation and how she was responding to it. We weren’t incredulous, we weren’t shocked or surprised; we did talk and muse about how she arrived at this point. We also felt that if either of us were out of work and in receipt of assistance, we’d find ourselves feeling down on ourselves and working hard to gain back our financial independence and with it our self-esteem.
My colleague made an astute observation. He said it was ironic how her apparent contentment being on assistance wasn’t causing her any obvious stress as it does with some, and how with this lack of worry, she might just be ‘healthy’ in that sense. Her food and rent money came in monthly, and as she isn’t struggling to get a job, she’s not really getting disappointed and rejected. If her friends are on assistance too and she’s living within her means, not wanting much she can’t afford, he could understand her desire to maintain the status quo.
Now we both like our social service system here in Ontario, Canada. It works for a large number of the population and you need to experience it from the inside to really know how it works to support people while they reclaim their independence. It’s not a preferred lifestyle for most and neither of us would want to change our present circumstances for hers.
We reasoned that coming from middle class backgrounds with the expectations and advantages of our upbringings, no personal exposure to being on financial assistance, we both have, “get a job, pay your own way” imprinted on us at an early age. Some folks, and I can’t say she is one, have had a different upbringing and their expectations are their, ‘normal’; but the two perspectives are different from each other.
It is not fair nor logical for either my colleague or I to sit in judgement of her or people like her and say, “because we were raised to be financial independent as adults, you too must feel the same way and if you don’t, it is our job to convert you.” That makes about as much sense as someone in the upper class projecting their values on he and I and trying to convert us to some higher level. Their experiences and expectations aren’t shared with us.
And perhaps the degree of separation from another persons reality determines how agitated or amazed you are when you encounter others who don’t think the same as you do or act the way you would. So a high income, upper class earner driven to succeed and make more income from year to year may react stronger to hearing of people on assistance who aren’t motivated to work. Conversely a person relying on assistance may struggle with trying to understand the person who isn’t happy with an $800,000.00 property and is working hard to afford a bigger home, a bigger car, a nicer cottage etc.
This isn’t about slamming her for her attitude. No it’s about you and I first reconciling in our own minds how someone who thinks differently than us, was and continues to be shaped by her world as she experiences it. She’s enrolled in school to upgrade her education from that grade 8 or 9 level (and that’s a step). Maybe it’s not a career in her future but a series of jobs. Maybe there are mental health issues both known and unknown to be addressed, motivation to find and ignite.
To reach a goal, the goal must be identified and owned by the person themselves. Barriers to employment need identifying and steps mapped out. Real change may take longer in some than others. Empathy and a lack of judgement on our parts may be key components we can offer.