The Poor House

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The Poor House

by Judy Rebick

Source: Elm Street, November 2001

Par. 1

Kimberly Roger's dark death, while under house arrest for welfare fraud in a sweltering Sudbury apartment last summer, may finally shine a light on the increasing criminalization of poor people. Rogers had been placed under house arrest for six months for accepting student loans of $14,000 while collecting welfare. Her welfare payments were halted for three months and she had to pay back the $13,500 she'd received over four years.

Par. 2

"Imagine," says Amanda Chodura, an Elizabethan Fry Society case worker who visited Rogers regularly before her death, "being cooped up in a tiny apartment with a difficult pregnancy and no money."

Par. 3

No doubt the coming inquest will ask why Rogers was under house arrest for a first offence. Perhaps if she could have afforded a better lawyer she would have got probation.

Par. 4

The Rogers case ended with a greater tragedy than most but it's not unique. The National Council of Welfare has sounded the alarm: "For the same criminal behaviour, the poor are more likely to be arrested; if arrested, they are more likely to be charged; if convicted, more likely to be sent to prison and get longer sentences." Supporting that notion is a 1997 study by Dianne Martin, Toronto lawyer and York University professor, that found of 50 people convicted of welfare fraud, 80 percent were sentenced to prison, the highest incarceration rate for any crime except murder.

Par. 5

With the right-wing shift of governments in Ontario and Alberta, Canada has moved from a social welfare state to a social control state. Instead of income support and social services, we offer the poor little better than alms and the hard fist of state repression to ensure they accept the pittance. We pride ourselves on being a humane society but that is changing.

Par. 6

Besides aggressive welfare fraud convictions, several provinces have instituted so-called safe street acts that make it a criminal offence to panhandle. Reports from anti-poverty groups indicate that police harassment of poor people has also dramatically increased as welfare rates have declined. Concern is not for the vulnerable but for the middle-class burghers who are annoyed by them.

Par. 7

Savage cuts in social assistance are massively reinforcing a system that already penalizes the poor. With social housing almost non-existent in most provinces, no one can live on welfare rates unless they have financial support from relatives. In Ontario, a single disabled person gets less than $1,000 per month. In other provinces, it's even worse. Rogers, who suffered from depression but was not considered disabled, put almost half her cheque toward rent.

Par. 8

With the dramatic decline in welfare rates in most provinces over the last decade, women who may receive some extra money from family or who work under the table are treated like criminals by government. If they report the money, it is deducted from their cheques. If they don't report, they risk being charged with fraud.

Par. 9

Welfare rates make it impossible to make ends meet. If your children were going hungry, would you risk a fraud conviction to get money to feed them? Poor women are becoming more desperate and when they get in trouble, they can't afford to defend themselves. Add reductions to legal aid to the litany of cutbacks that hit poor people the hardest.

Par. 10

The federal government talks a good game but has done little to alleviate the state of despair facing so many. Claudette Bradshaw, minister of labour and the federal coordinator on homelessness, is a lovely woman with great experience working with the poor but she has done little to solve the desperate problem of homelessness in our big cities. The child tax benefit, meanwhile, does nothing for people receiving welfare since most provinces tax it back.

Par. 11

We are well on the way to creating a persecuted underclass, many of whom are single mothers with children. Poor people who barely subsist on welfare live in a world of desperation that most of us cannot even imagine. I am horrified at how little public outrage has greeted this rapid decline in our humanity to our fellow citizens.


In order to practice your essay analysis skills, you may use your “Functions of a Paragraph” notes and your “Rhetorical Devices” notes to answer the following questions.

  1. Briefly describe the tone of the essay. Support your description with an appropriate quotation from the essay.

  1. In your own words, state the thesis of this essay.

  1. Development of the argument: For any two paragraphs, (i) state what you feel is the paragraph’s function in developing Rebick’s argument; and (ii) explain how this paragraph and function help support his thesis and make her argument.

  1. Rhetorical devices: discuss the author’s use of any three rhetorical devices. For each device, (i) state in which paragraph it appears and identify the rhetorical device by writing it out; (ii) define the rhetorical device; (iii) then explain how the rhetorical device helps develop Rebick’s argument. [Note: you may not discuss the same example twice even if it happens to work as two different types of rhetorical device.]

  1. Personal response: In a 500-word personal response, agree or disagree with Rebick's thesis.

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