Food insecurity, loss of spouse, leads New Brunswick woman into poverty

From her tiny apartment in a New Brunswick city, Isabelle Gurney, 40, says she can see couples and families moving about with their lives. They all seem to have busy lives together, and they always seem happy to her. Isabelle hopes for that level of happiness again someday, but it seems distant to her. It seems so far out of reach.

Early Years

Isabelle was 9 years old when she watched her father walk out the door without saying goodbye, never to be heard from again.

Her parents had struggled together, where they lived in rural New Brunswick. They hard a hard time getting along and they were always fighting about personal finances, she remembers. From that moment on,  her mother would struggle alone. As she tried to provide an adequate life for Isabelle and her younger sister, it seemed that the quest for adequate food was always present in their lives.

“I remember visits to the food bank. I remember my mom asking relatives for help. It was always the foremost thing on her mind,” she says.

Isabelle says although she remembers the perpetual negotiations her mother was involved in for food and sometimes money, she must have had some degree of success.

“I don’t ever remember being hungry. I think my mother always made sure we kids were taken care of,” she says.

Her mother, now deceased, wasn’t an educated person, says Isabelle. She worked at a bar as a waitress when Isabelle was growing up.

“She grew up poor, too. I remember some of her stories,” says Isabelle. “She could only do what she could do.”

Job Hopping

Once Isabelle was old enough, she left home before completing her high school education, moving from their rural home into a larger centre in the province where she remains. Her sister, two years younger, also left high school early but chose instead to move to Ontario. Isabelle only hears from her sister sporadically and thinks she’s “mixed up with some bad people.”

Once Isabelle was out on her own, she did a lot of “job hopping,” according to her.

“I get restless too easy, I guess. And you meet a lot of people you don’t always like, to put it politely,” she says, laughing. “I don’t put up with a lot of bull.”

It wasn’t long before Isabelle was on social assistance. It was been an on-again off-again relationship with welfare throughout her twenties.

She never seemed to have enough food, either, and it was a memory she didn’t like, given her childhood experiences.

“That’s when I started to do stupid things,” she says. “And it’s not something I’m proud of.”

Isabelle shoplifted occasionally, trying to augment her meagre social assistance allowance. She was never caught.

“I thank God for that, you know? That would have been the worst, to have ended up with a criminal record back then,” she says.

Isabelle was a heavy user of the food bank system.

“You learn not to be proud, after a certain amount of time has passed,” she says.

Food Bank Use

According to CBC News, a greater proportion of food bank users in New Brunswick are children, homeowners, or welfare recipients, a national report in 2015 shows. Also, 70 percent of food bank users receive social assistance benefits there, which exceeds the Canadian average of 50 percent.

From a national estimate in 2012, 12.7 percent of Canadian households experienced some level of food insecurity. Households on social assistance have a much higher risk of food insecurity, with over half of these households food insecure in 2012. Single mothers, renters, new immigrants, and indigenous people are also more likely to be food insecure.

Marriage and Death

Things stabilized for Isabelle, after she met her husband when she was 29.

“He was a great guy,” reflects Isabelle. “We were the same age. He had a full-time job and was a hard worker. I was working part-time. We were okay, financially. Things were so much better than in the earlier part of my life. We were really compatible — I felt lucky,” she says.

Her feeling of luck at the turn of events for her life would take a tragic u-turn. Just six years later, at the age of 35, her husband’s life was taken by a brain aneurism that seemed to develop overnight.

“It all happened within a month or so. All of a sudden he had intense headaches…a few weeks later he was gone,” she says. “My life was turned upside down.”

After the uncertain lifestyle of her twenties, Isabelle had just acclimated to a good working class lifestyle that was created through the partnership her marriage brought. Five years ago, all of that suddenly ended.

“Losing a spouse, especially so early, really upturns your life,” she says. “I was a wreck.”

Isabelle and her husband never had children, something she has mixed feelings about.

“We still had time. We talked about it. I guess it wasn’t meant to happen,” she says.

Isabelle carries on with her part-time job at the warehouse where she was working. She only gets about 20 to 25 hours a week, though, the maximum hours they will give her. This is a common approach to hiring since the globalization of economies and the rise of precarious work. (This is work that is defined as part-time, temporary, contract, and usually without benefits.)

A Basic Income

When told about the idea of a basic income guarantee, Isabelle was intrigued with the possibility. She believes it would have an immediate positive impact for low-income Canadians like her.

“The job I’ve got right now isn’t that bad, I just wish I could do it full-time. If basic income supplemented me, I wouldn’t have to worry at all about food, rent, or anything I need to live properly,” she says.

“And I do have to worry about all of this, since my husband died.”

Isabelle finds herself occasionally visiting the food bank again. She had to downsize her accommodations and lives very frugally now.

“There’s no extras for me.”

Health care system

Canadian research published last summer shows that as food insecurity worsens, health care costs rise, too.

According to Professor Elaine Power, from Queen’s University in Ontario, in the most food insecure households, where people were skipping meals, health care costs were 76 percent higher than in households that were food secure. When the cost of prescription drugs was added in, health care costs were 121 percent higher in the most food insecure households compared to food secure households.

Isabelle says she can see how a basic income guarantee could supplement her earned income and ensure she never has to be food insecure again.

“I know my life would be a whole lot better with a basic income as a kind of floor that I could count on.”

Isabelle says she sees it as a “foundation.”

“A foundation is what I lost five years ago, at a pretty young age. I’m trying to build a better life. I think basic income would be a real, positive change,” she says.

“I wish it could happen tomorrow.”

***Isabelle Gurney is not her real name, in order to protect her identity.