Poverty makes people work hard just as being chased by a bear makes people run fast, but only a sadist would recommend either as a character-building exercise. A million Canadians work two jobs and sixty-hour weeks, by official estimate. Former senator Hugh Segal recounts this drudgery in his own childhood memories of Mother and Father pulling night shifts to pay the rent in a cramped world lit by 40-watt bulbs.
“Being on the cheery edge of poverty is not, as some bootstraps proponents assert, about building character and ambition,” writes Segal. “It is about understanding that the financial insecurity at the centre of your existence, once installed in your memory bank, never leaves.”
The Segals were working poor, cabbies and garment salesmen and drugstore clerks. They ate meat and Hugh had his own bedroom in their Montréal walk-up. Segal recalls a prized bottle of Crown Royal saved for extraordinary occasions. No one took a vacation. The bailiff repossessed their car.
Young Hugh remembers the time his older brother caught hell for taking the two of them to a carnival for the day. Working poor never ask, “What would you like to do today?” Every day is like the last.
“I realized poor people had far fewer choices than everyone else,” he writes. “That money pressures took their toll: on relationships, on outlook, on day-to-day life, on parental harmony, on future prospects.”
Boot Straps Need Boots is a great Canadian memoir of a poignant Canadian experience recognizable to millions. And it is more than that. Segal recalls as a 12-year old the day Prime Minister Diefenbaker spoke to his school assembly. Diefenbaker had a way of mesmerizing schoolchildren. “The family table we call Canada is the finest table in the world,” said the Prime Minister. “There is space and food for all.”
Here Segal comes to the point of Boot Straps, a plain argument for a national guaranteed income program. This has been the policy of the Canadian Labour Congress for fifty years. “Not trying something different – not even attempting to see if poverty can be alleviated in a more humane and efficient way – is a very serious mistake,” he writes. “The only thing worse than a bias shaped by poor expectations about low-income citizens and their prospects is a sense of complacent defeatism about how, as a mature and productive society, we can reduce poverty and its impact,” he writes.
This is not Marxism. Successive governments endorsed direct federal aid to working people who are hard up, albeit in a piecemeal approach. Parliament in 2016 introduced the Canada Child Benefit that pays low-income parents $6,946 per child. The 1991 Farm Income Protection Act pays matching grants, up to $25,000 a year, to ranchers who deposit one percent of net sales in a savings account to tide them through bad years.
Of course Parliament also charges the working poor GST on home heating and parkas, levies corporate income tax on the smallest of small business, and in 2018 passed a carbon tax that pays an identical rebate to all tax-filers whether you are a billionaire who winters in Florida, or a single mother who shuttles 200 kilometres a week to a job at Walmart.
Boot Straps Need Boots appeals for a reasoned approach, a reconsideration of all scattered aid programs into one coherent, universal guaranteed income plan. In this minority Parliament, the proposal has friends.
By Holly Doan
Boot Straps Need Boots, by Hugh Segal; University of British Columbia Press; 216 pages; ISBN 9780-7748-90458; $32.95