The Invisible Poor

By Colin McGregor   

J. went to Services Canada to apply for unemployment insurance. But he couldn’t follow through until the end.

“There were complicated words on the forms,” he complains. “Written in a complex fashion. It was really far more complicate than I thought it would be. And then there were the looks from others who were there. You’re really embarrassed. It’s like they don’t want it to be easy or accessible.”

So J., a young man in his early 20s, turned heel and left before filling out his unemployment insurance forms. For a time, he remained one of the young invisible poor.

Dr. Antoine Rode is a research fellow at the Université Grenoble Alpes in France. His specialty is studying the part of the population isolated from support services. People who don’t apply for welfare or other social safety net forms of support. And there are a lot of them.

“You have to have access to mobile phones and computers to access a lot of these services,” he says. “If you don’t you are a part of what we call in academia the ‘non-take-up’ population. People invisible to governments and social service agencies. People who don’t have access to a number of rights and public services.”

Dr. Rode says it is very difficult to measure the size of the problem in Quebec. Quantifying the non-take-ups is impossible. “A lot of people don’t even fill out their income tax forms,” he observes. The only statistic we have is from Revenu Quebec, who says that 40,000 eligible for their tax credit didn’t apply for it.

He says it’s an important problem not just here, but all around the world. In France, the finance ministry estimates that 3 billion Euros (4.5 billion Canadian dollars) in assistance isn’t distributed to people who need it.

The problem is particularly acute among youth. Dr. Rode believes that one in two youths “miss out on a right,” as he puts it. These rights include health care.

There are several causes for this. For example, many can’t apply for something on line, whether out of access to a computer or basic computer literacy skills. There are kids who don’t know about programs they can apply to, and many who don’t care.

There is also a question of stigmatization when applying for government assistance. “You might get labeled” as a failure, as Dr. Rode puts it. The dehumanization of the system starts with labels that categorize people.  

Literacy Issues

As well, think of the increasing electronic literacy people need day to day just to get through life, whether it be to carry out a bank transaction, to buy something online, find a doctor, work, lead a social life…

According to the Literacy Foundation 19% of all adult Quebecers are illiterate and 34% have trouble reading, which signifies that 53% of all Quebecers, more than one in two, have literacy issues.

Moreover, even if someone struggles and successfully fills out the right forms correctly, young people often don’t think it’s worth all the hassle. “Spending hours on the computer to get $300 doesn’t seem worth it,” Dr. Rode suggests. “Maybe we’ve missed something in drawing up some of these programs.”  The simple fact of creating a website for a program doesn’t mean that all those who need the program can easily access it. There are those who find the internet intimidating and confusing…

Happily, says Dr. Rode in terms of the non-take-ups, “there is a greater and greater mobilization concerning this subject. A reflection.” As well as a conscience that “it’s the role of the street youth social worker to explain to them their rights.”

Antoine Rode gave a presentation at the colloquium on young marginalized urban youths in Montreal North, put on by the Café-Jeunesse Multiculturel in partnership with the University of Ottawa’s Centre for Research on Educational and Community Services (CRECS).

Those invisible to social institutions aren’t limited to only the young. Older people often have troubles with negotiating the internet. Immigrants often don’t have the language skills in English or French to apply for programs.   

In Montreal North, a borough initiative to supply sustainable hygiene products to women, fully paid for, hit an obstacle: in a district in which 7 of 10 families have at least one parent who is born outside of Canada, many can’t read the instructions on how to use the products, nor handle the e-forms that need to be filled out to access the product.


“In other countries, these sorts of products, like diapers, are paid for by the government, like in Ireland for example,” points out Julie Demers, director of the Coop de solidarité Éconord. For her, it is important to distribute more ecologically responsible diapers than are sold by stores – her group hands out washable diapers. “A disposable diaper lasts for 400 years in a dump!” But it’s useless if those getting the products can’t follow the instructions, nor register on the internet to get the kits.

Therefore, Demers says, “We had to redo our brochure in pictograms.”

J. was able to get his life together by getting involved in the Café-Jeunesse Multiculturel, a youth program that has existed for 40 years in Montreal North. He is now a proud member of society, and he even has a job. He managed to overcome the stigmatization that came from being young and marginalized. But it took time.

So the next time you see statistics that claim to show the number of Quebecers living below the poverty line, don’t forget that there are tens of thousands, if not more, that get through the day without access to any services or subsidies they qualify for. We only see the tip of the iceberg…    

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.