06/25/2014 12:53 EDT | Updated 08/25/2014 05:59 EDT

Why Poor People Can't Just "Get a Job"

If you are like me, you often start conversations with new people off with, "what do you do?" -- and by this I usually mean their employment. For many of us, our jobs define who we are and bring us a sense of purpose. And, for the privileged among us, a paid job makes it possible for us to put a roof over our heads and food on our table.

office job

Thinking of our jobs as our "bread and butter" often leads to complicated conversations as a result of overly-simplified, self-centred logic around poverty. The thought sequence goes like this: Why am I not poor? Well, it's because I have a job! Why is he poor? It must be because he is unemployed. What's the solution? He should get a job.

We end up thinking that employment is the ultimate or easy fix. Maybe if she worked on her résumé or interview skills. Maybe if he got a degree. Maybe if they applied for more jobs. Maybe if they weren't always watching TV.

In truth, a good job is a way out of poverty. There are many who long for meaningful work that will give them a chance to contribute to society and earn a decent paycheque.

But, it's more complicated than we might think. There are some key reasons why employment isn't the only answer.

1. Having a job does not always keep people out of poverty.

Fourty-four per cent of low-income households in Canada had at least one person working in 2011. And for those working on minimum wage, making ends meet is a challenge. These people make up the category that is defined as the "working poor" -- those who are working but still live below the poverty line.

2. A good job is hard to find.

Increasingly, employers are moving to hiring part-time, contract workers with limited, if any, benefits. Experts are calling this kind of work situation "precarious employment." A study of the growth of this kind of work in the Greater Toronto Area found that at least 20 per cent of those working are in precarious forms of employment. They also found that this type of employment has increased by nearly 50 per cent in the last 20 years.

A good job is particularly hard to find for many immigrants who come to Canada with hopes of a better life only to find their qualifications as a doctor or engineer are not recognized here. This leaves them with the challenge of rebuilding a career from the ground up, often making minimum wage.

3. Survival first, employment later.

Getting to a place where employment is even a possibility can be extremely challenging for those who are simply trying to survive. When you don't know where your next meal is coming from or if you struggle to pay your bills, searching for a job or gaining the skills necessary to get a job can be an incredible challenge.

4. The job market is inaccessible for many people.

There are many barriers that prevent people from getting a job outside of those already mentioned. Mental illness, addictions, disability, and discrimination based on gender, race, age, or sexual orientation -- these all contribute to an inaccessible job market for many people living in poverty. As one example, the Canadian Mental Health Association estimates that between 70-90 per cent of persons with a serious mental illness are unemployed.

It's also important to note that the job market is inaccessible for those who have always been poor and have not had equal access to education, mentorship opportunities, or the networks that often lead to a job.

How do we make sure jobs help people living in poverty?

Tackling the challenge of employment is certainly one piece of the poverty puzzle. But it's just that: one piece. There is no silver bullet. We need an all-hands-on-deck, cross-sectoral approach.

Here are some ways in which we could support employment as a means to alleviate poverty:

  • Ensure that any political conversation about jobs and job growth specifies what kind of jobs are being created or are available. A job does not necessarily mean a ticket out of poverty: we need good jobs. All jobs should be good jobs.
  • Call for governments to address unemployment, under-employment and lower wages of youth, people with disabilities, racialized persons, Aboriginal peoples and women.
  • Support poverty reduction plans in your city (Toronto just got one!) or province and call for governments to take poverty seriously by creating a federal poverty reduction plan (for more on a federal poverty plan, take a look at the Dignity for All campaign).
  • Foster awareness of poverty as complex by ensuring that it is not seen as an 'individual' problem.
  • Press politicians to create a reasonable standard for a living wage.
  • Be an ambassador for equal access to quality, affordable education for all Canadians.
  • Support a social safety net as an important public good. A social safety net can help those who are unemployed and provide stability and assistance needed to enter the job market.

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