“Peg Sharing Circle – Exploring the Lived Experience of Poverty” IISD, The United Way

Feb 16, 2011 | Corporate Member News

Valerie Wolbert, Christa Rust (Interviewer), Jason E.J. Manaigre (Technical Producer), IISD, United Way, 2010. Video (11:12), copyright: IISD, United Way

“People look down on you because you’re poor. They consider you to be a bum. The government puts constraints on you so you can’t get out of poverty.”

Valerie is the President of the Manitoba Chapter of People First, an organization for people with intellectual disabilities. She lives with her husband and her two cats.

Born with an intellectual disability, Valerie grew up in a foster family with two parents, two sisters, and a brother. She received her schooling in both Poplar Point and Portage la Prairie, with the last three years in a Special Education class. She found the social aspect of school difficult because other children picked on her because of her disability. When she was in the Special Education classes, she felt isolated from the other students.

When Valerie first entered the workforce, she lived with her mother in an apartment. Her mother took care of all the day-to-day details. As a result, she found the move to her own home difficult. Shortly after moving to her own place, she got sick and had to stay for a while in the Grace Hospital. In 1994, she met her first husband. Unfortunately, that marriage was short-lived: he was killed by the Indian Posse two years later. After that, she lived at the Salvation Army and then in a group home before getting her own home.

Valerie re-married and currently lives with her husband in a three-bedroom townhouse, which they rented in hopes of having a family. They didn’t have a child and now find themselves in a home that is too expensive for them. Valerie is on disability and brings in about $1,300 per month. Her husband is only able to work about five hours per week. Despite their low income, their monthly housing costs total $925 in rent and utilities.

Valerie misses having a job and earning an income. She says that when she stopped working she felt that she wasn’t worth anything. She didn’t know where to go for help. She did get a part time job, but then the money was clawed back from her disability and her insurance. She had to pay a lot back to the government.

Valerie’s health also concerns her, as she is having problems with the medical system. She hurt her shoulder two years ago and is just now getting an MRI. She feels that if she had money, she could go elsewhere for treatment; however, because she doesn’t, she has to just wait.

Valerie has many recreational interests. She travels in her role with People First and enjoys that. She walks in the Manitoba Marathon once a year. However, her income limits which other activities she can participate in.


Lonny, Greta, Christa Rust (Interviewer), Jason E.J. Manaigre (Technical Producer), IISD, United Way, 2010. Video (8:38), copyright: IISD, United Way

“Poverty for me means not having $5 for your pocket, not even $5”

“It’s a constant struggle: I always worry about spending money on anything. Right now I only have $1.”

Lonny and Greta are living in a common-law relationship, along with six of their eight children. They have been on social assistance for seven years, and they find it very difficult. The program provides them with $6,000 per month for eight people.

Lonny and Greta live in a three-bedroom Manitoba Housing unit and find Manitoba Housing difficult to deal with. Their home is too small for eight people. Despite the fact that the older boys need their own space, they’re not allowed to build a bedroom in the basement because it would be a fire hazard. Furthermore, they spoke of how they are billed when something needs fixing. For example, one of their children threw an apple in the toilet, so they needed to call the plumber on the weekend. They said that Manitoba Housing billed them even though “we’re obviously low income . . . that’s why we’re in Housing” and don’t have money to pay the bill. In June, they went through a hearing for a different issue : neighbours jumped Greta’s daughter, slashed her face with a beer bottle, and then smashed their windows. Lonny and Greta received a bill for $1,800 to fix the windows. Greta stated that they appealed the billing and won that case. They still have to pay the $191 plumbing bill.

Their issues with housing are exacerbated by the current bedbug epidemic. Their home has been sprayed twice. They had to get rid of their furniture and can’t afford to replace it. Lonny said that rich people get dealt with right away, but when you living in Manitoba Housing you have to wait 20–30 days for the second spray. Greta added that the hatching time is only 10 days, and so the longer wait doesn’t help them. They both indicated that they’re tired of the bites.

Both Lonny and Greta recalled the experiences that have led them to this point. Lonny went to school on the reserve and then at David Livingstone School. Although they didn’t have much money, his stepfather spoiled him with toys. Lonny feels that he did that to feel better when he saw the look on his son’s face and wouldn’t feel that he was depriving him. Lonny recognizes the same pattern in himself now. When he was younger, he spent time involved in alcohol and drug use, gangs, jails, Manitoba Youth Centre, and ‘the pen’. He said that when he was involved in programs, he didn’t need to worry about money – but then when he got out, he didn’t have money and would go back to crime.

Greta also grew up on social assistance. She became pregnant when she was 16 and living on the reservation. She had her second baby when she was 17. She left the reservation when she was 18. Her parents wouldn’t let her take her children with her, and so she had to involve the police in getting them back. She initially stayed in a women’s shelter when she got to Winnipeg, and then at the Salvation Army. When it was time to leave Salvation Army, Greta quickly rented the first home she could find. She met another man and had three children with him. She is currently attempting to get child support from her previous two boyfriends.

The one time that Greta found social assistance to be helpful, she said, was when her son had leukemia. He was in treatment for 3 ½ years and they received a lot of help from both social assistance and CancerCare Manitoba. They paid for her taxis to the hospital, for which she was grateful. Her son is now in remission.

Both Greta and Lonny would like to find work and both went back to school to that end. Despite being trained, neither of them has been able to obtain employment. An additional barrier that Lonny faces is that there are jobs that aren’t options for him due to clearance limitations.

Lonny and Greta had a lot to say about the experience of living in poverty. Lonny said, “It’s insane the way we live. People think that we’re used to the way we live–but that’s not what I’m used to.” He added that trying to find ways to pay bills is emotionally troubling and stressful on their relationship. They get tired of having to report to social assistance and of the assumptions made about them based on their poverty. If something is stolen from their home, it’s assumed that they are lying because they live in poverty. Instead of recognizing the fact that their home isn’t protected, it is also assumed that they pawned their belongings.

The couple finds that money management is difficult. When they get unexpected money, Greta would like to use it to pay the bills, while Lonny sees it as an opportunity to get something they usually can’t afford. He wants to be able to do more for his children and not have them feel deprived. He uses the example of the ice cream man. Greta says that with the cost of buying ice cream from the ice cream man, they could buy a whole pail. Lonny, though, hates that they can’t give their children things because they don’t have money.

Lonny raised the question of why poverty is finally being recognized as an important problem now, and why there is currently interest in solving it. He wondered why it hasn’t been addressed before, and suggested that the current approaches aren’t helping. He speculated about what a “professional expert” would do if forced to live in poverty. “They say to live on a budget. Okay. They say to take programs. Okay. Now what?” Lonny says that they have been in this lifestyle too long, and they don’t know how to get out of it.

Find out about others in the Peg Sharing Circle here.

About the International Institute for Sustainable Development

The world is challenged by a changing climate, biodiversity loss, abject poverty and environmental degradation. What can make a difference? Good ideas. Creativity. Passion. Innovation. The achievement of change.

IISD is in the business of promoting change towards sustainable development. As a policy research institute dedicated to effective communication of our findings, we engage decision-makers in government, business, NGOs and other sectors in the development and implementation of policies that are simultaneously beneficial to the global economy, the global environment and to social well-being.

In the pursuit of sustainable development, we promote open and effective international negotiation processes. And we believe fervently in the importance of building our own institutional capacity while helping our partner organizations in the developing world to excel.

Established in 1990, IISD is a Canadian-based not-for-profit organization with a diverse team of more than 150 people located in more than 30 countries. Through our dynamic portfolio of projects, we partner with more than 200 organizations throughout the world. To learn more about our history, please visit the IISD Timeline.

Click here to learn more about our project work and programs, which are guided by our strategic institutional directions. And please visit our IISD Linkages site to follow our coverage of international negotiations on environment and development.

IISD is registered as a charitable organization in Canada and has 501(c)(3) status in the United States. IISD receives core operating support from the Government of Canada, provided through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and Environment Canada, and from the Province of Manitoba. The Institute receives project funding from numerous governments inside and outside Canada, United Nations agencies, foundations and the private sector.

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