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. That's the amount, according to Daily Bread, that would be left from a welfare cheque for three after paying $690 for rent, $18 for TTC tickets, $6.60 for a basic phone, and $10.45 for laundry, personal (toothpaste) and household (cleaners, toilet paper) goods.
So I surveyed prices at our local food store and figured out 21 meal plans that would supply a sampling of the four basic food groups (grains, fruits and vegetables, dairy, and meat or meat alternatives). Then I went shopping for food that could be turned into meals costing 79 cents a serving.
On Sunday night we explain the idea behind the welfare diet to our 10-year-old, Anika, warn her that Daddy will be cooking some pretty boring meals for a week, but assure her that none of us will go hungry. On Monday morning Anika is more nervous than I am. She wants to know if we will have to go to the food bank. I'm a bit taken aback. It's the first time I've realized that a relatively sheltered 10-year-old already understands that food banks, which weren't even invented until I was 38, are an assumed part of our social safety net.
The term "food insecurity," which refers in part to the anxiety Anika is expressing, has only been around for about 10 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 tell her. And I mean it. In fact, I'm feeling ahead of the game. I cook up two-thirds of a cup of oatmeal in a cup of soymilk and a cup of water, add 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 figure -- and a small glass of milk for Anika, we come in at $1.80, 19 cents under par each.
While Anika is eating breakfast, I make lunch. I'm sure my body language is confident because I know we are coming in under the line again: a cheese and lettuce sandwich on whole wheat with carrot and celery sticks for all of us, and an apple just for Anika, costs $2.25, 4 cents each under budget.
Anika comes over to the counter where I am working and asks which sandwich is mine and which is hers. I point to hers, hoping she won't see under the lettuce that she has a slice more of cheese than me or her mom. She lifts half the lettuce and cheese from her sandwich and puts it on mine. You need it, she says. Instead of hugging her, I snap. "You let me worry about that," I say, slamming the lettuce back on her sandwich.
I'd forgotten that my male upbringing was so close to the surface. Within 10 minutes of pretending to be a welfare parent, the role-playing is 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 get a sense of how "deadbeat dads" become deadbeats, fleeing their shame as much as their responsibilities. It takes a few more meals before I figure out that I am going to be physically, as well as psychologically, deprived during my one-week stunt.
I almost hold 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'm amazed at how quickly my need for social engagement and dignity overrides my biological need for food and blows my meal planning to bits. By my third day, I've 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 cost of a treat.
The Daily Bread Food Bank advised all us volunteer welfare dieters that one of the best ways to get through the week was to mooch a meal. So I engineer an invitation, figuring I'll save $2.37, money left over to buy me some kind of a present for my birthday on the second-last day of the diet. But I am 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 keeps me from doing the right thing -- costs $8.50, another eight individual meals forgone.
Fortunately, my mom is going to take us out for dinner for my birthday, so a $2.37 saving is in sight. And Lori has 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 have to miss 13 meals to do penance for my miscalculation and false pride. That's not a total disaster, I think. I'll skip four meals over the next four days, and nine more next week; after all, welfare cheques cover a month, so I can honour the spirit of this exercise by spreading the loss over two weeks.
Which might have worked if the father of one of our good friends hadn't died, and my partner Lori hadn't volunteered to bring over dinner for the family -- 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 during 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. First, penny-wise, pound-foolish social welfare benefits cost the taxpayers more than they save. Though we could afford 21 meals if we never spent a penny on treats, we could never afford the full range of nutrients that protect against chronic disease. The treatment for any given chronic disease starts at about $40,000, so these 79-cent skimpy meals are going to turn out to be very pricey.
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 them as temples, or as instruments of investment in human capital. It's the job of social policy in a society that provides medicare to overcome that strategy for coping, among other things, by providing enough money for food.
Second, the 20 per cent cut to welfare benefits imposed since 1995. The costs of a nutritious food basket have gone up by about 20 per cent since then, but welfare levels haven't budged. This grinds down the self-esteem and sociability essential to the empowerment of the poor. This level of social benefits manufactures habits that flow from isolation, marginalization and exclusion. It discourages, not spurs, new strategies.
Third, this level of social benefits creates no stimulus for the local economy,once a basic rationale for humane levels of social assistance. Affordable foods on a welfare diet are almost all imports; think of such staples as tuna (now considered risky because of mercury) or peanut butter. So almost all the dollars that the poor spend on food -- about $300 million a year in T.O. enough to create about 7,000 food-related jobs -- leave the local economy to pay for cheap imports. That's the economics of biting off your nose to spite your face and the price paid by a society that ignores a basic duty.