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Dispatches from the Poverty Line

by Pat Capponi

A war is being fought across Canada right now, but it’s one we seldom see dramatized in vivid images on the late-night television news.

The war, of course, is the poverty war, and depending on your point of view – and comfort zone in society – it can be seen two ways. Either the war is being fought on behalf of the much-vaunted irate taxpayer, who wants the debt cleaned up, “handouts” eliminated, and taxes reduced, or it is being waged, through a variety of blunt cutbacks, upon those who are the walking wounded of our society, poor people themselves.

Pat Capponi would subscribe to the second definition, and so would the growing pantheon of the “new poor,” those people who have been relieved of gainful employment through downsizing, redundancy, elimination, and all the other fancy management euphemisms that result in that dismal statelessness called unemployment.

Astute readers will recognize Capponi’s name from her wrenching first book, Upstairs in the Crazy House, a memoir of her time as a recovering psychiatric patient in a Toronto group home. Dispatches from the Poverty Line gives us a new chapter in Capponi’s life – which she says is “so full of ups and downs I’m thinking of putting in an escalator” – as an unemployed person after a period of acclaim as a writer, success as an activist, and a contract with the Ontario government to help groups of chronic psychiatric patients across the province. Working out of Toronto’s Gerstein Centre, a non-medical facility for persons in “psycho-social crisis,” Capponi was able to draw on her own experience, her writing and speaking skills, and her social activism. It was the perfect job for her. And in just a few short months, it fell to the Harris government common-sense axe.

In the winter of 1996, Capponi began to keep a journal of her life as a poor person, indeed, her life as a starving person. Many of her entries are made on days when her sole diet is two-day-old bagels and many cups of tap water to make her “feel full.” This book provides painful, necessary reading for the era in which we live. I hope the bureaucrats who have jobs, and the politicians who take $400 lunches, have it thrust upon them as a form of “reality therapy.”

Capponi is an exceptional soldier in the poverty war: she does not whine, she simply reports, bluntly and with a greater degree of resilience and humour than anyone has a right to expect of her. She talks about all the indignities forced upon the poor, including counting squares of toilet paper to induce frugal usage. She talks about the fleeting oblivion of sleep, which is good because “it bothers me that I can’t be awake without using up something. A cigarette, a bagel, something.” She talks about how her landlord doesn’t turn the heat on in her one-room flat to save himself money and how she’s cold all the time because she’s not taking in enough food and has lost two jean sizes in weight.

Taken individually, these may seem like little things. Taken day after day, month in and month out, they make up the grinding, grating fabric of poverty. Capponi is a courageous woman: “As bad, as difficult as it is for me, I am very aware of how much I have compared to most of the poor. I still have four walls around me and a door that locks, though these things feel much less substantial now that they are threatened. I have words to describe what I feel ….”
These dispatches from the front are Capponi’s fruitful employment of her words.This is an important book; every Canadian wishing to be an informed citizen should read it immediately.