OPINION | Working poor among the hardest hit during COVID-19 pandemic

Bad news: if you were living close to or at the poverty line prior to the COVID-19 crisis and the unprecedented economic downturn that has accompanied it, you’re probably worse off now than ever before.

Low-income earners weren't stocking up on groceries and medications when lockdown hit, says Lori Fox

Canned goods and produce are the staple items distributed in food hampers to people in need. Increased food bank use could be evidence of increased difficulties among low wage earners, says Lori Fox. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

Bad news: if you were living close to or at the poverty line prior to the COVID-19 crisis and the unprecedented economic downturn that has accompanied it, you're probably worse off now than ever before. 

Impoverished people are more likely to work low-wage jobs without benefits; they're also more likely to work in retail or service, which means either risking exposure to a potentially deadly virus or being one of 800,000 Canadians who were laid off from restaurants alone in March. By contrast, wealthier people are apt to have jobs where they can work from home, receive more employment insurance, and are more likely to have savings, assets or credit to fall back on. 

No matter how you slice it, the pandemic disproportionately impacts working poor and economically disadvantaged people. 

Some small relief for low-income folk came on Monday, when Yukon Minister of Health and Social Services Pauline Frost announced the government would not claw back money dispensed from the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB) from people on social assistance (SA).

Under the SA regulations — which the government is waiving for CERB from April to June — people on SA who also received CERB would have had that funding deducted from their SA dollar-for-dollar, not even at the 50 per cent at which they usually count other income over a certain threshold, even if they were working part-time and lost their job due to the pandemic. 

The Yukon government's decision to waive these regulations is both rational and humane, although the roll out of these exemptions wasn't announced until April 27, after at least one community member on SA had already been told their CERB payment would be deducted dollar-for-dollar, causing unnecessary fear and anxiety.

Although Frost said the regulations around SA and CERB were known to the government ahead of time, no one seems to have told either social workers or SA recipients that CERB exemptions were forthcoming. Social workers had been advising SA clients that CERB would be deducted dollar-for-dollar from their funding, Kristina Craig, executive director of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition, told CBC April 24.

Simply offering low income people the same funding as before — or even the little extra that might be gained through CERB, which is taxable, unlike SA — may not be enough. As Craig points out, we already know that low-income people — on SA or otherwise — are the group most vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19. We're already starting to see the evidence of that, she said, through increased use of the food bank.

Low income people weren't among those stocking up on groceries and medications when this lockdown hit, as doing that takes resources most simply don't have.

They're still functioning hand to mouth as they did before the pandemic, except now the country is a hot mess of rising food prices, rental housing insecurity and declining mental health, issues which impacted impoverished people disproportionately when society was — ostensibly —  running like it's supposed to. 

Above all else, we need to take care of each other right now — everyone, all of us. Regardless of our class — of our income, our credit ratings, our social status — every single person in our community deserves to be safe, healthy, warm and fed, not only during this crisis, but always.

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Lori Fox is a writer and journalist whose work has also appeared in Yukon News, Vice, and The Guardian. When they aren't writing, they can usually be found fishing, gathering wild mushrooms, or chilling with a book and their pitbull, Herman.