Most people are probably aware that immigrant and refugee families are over-represented in poverty statistics. 2011 data from the National Household Survey shows immigrants with less than five years in Canada have a one in three chance of being poor, much higher than the overall poverty rate.
The stories we hear about poverty among newcomer families often focus on the struggles and disappointments of parents being underemployed in low-paid and insecure jobs as they try to earn enough to support their children. The parents who come forward publicly to tell their stories of hard work and struggle are brave and generous. They help to bust myths and stereotypes held by the uninformed and let other immigrant families know that they are not alone in their difficulties.
Their stories also help illustrate that the systemic issues that trap them in poverty are affecting non-immigrants too, and are the shared responsibility of all of us to change. Issues such as BC’s low minimum wage, a tattered social safety net (e.g. inadequate social assistance and unemployment insurance programs), the lack of affordable, good quality child care, weak employment standards enforcement and weak support for trade union rights, all contribute to working poverty and unemployment among newcomers and others. Discrimination in employment and housing adds another layer of hardship for immigrants that we all can work to change.
The impacts on parents and their children of living in poverty for years are far-reaching. First and foremost, their mental and physical health suffers from the stress of chronic financial insufficiency, overwork and social isolation. Parents working two or three jobs have little time to spend with their children at home, let alone take them out for enriching experiences. Nutrition suffers, with consequences for both parent and child. No parent is at their best in these circumstances, yet parents make heroic efforts to provide the best care they can.
Well-meaning suggestions to volunteer and take post-secondary courses to improve employability are restricted by time available for the working poor, high course fees and waiting lists for free classes. Pressure to pay off refugee transportation loans push parents and older youth into any work, even at the expense of furthering their education.
Children of all ages feel their parents’ stress and feel helpless about making things better, especially when they are very young. They have their own stresses as they become aware of their poverty and resulting social exclusion when they are school age, but may try to protect their parents from further anxiety by keeping it to themselves. These strains may show up in their behavior at school or at home, leaving parents feeling helpless too.
Poverty is not an issue for every newcomer family, and poor immigrant and refugee families in our wealthy society live with the daily evidence of their position in the income hierarchy. Some feel this as a personal failure during their early settlement years. While they may receive the charity of Canadians in these years, what they really need is our solidarity to remove the public policy and other systemic barriers, and the discrimination that are keeping so many resilient and capable families and their children from reaching their potential in their new home.