Trying to break the cycle the poverty in a family

P.E.I. woman living on social assistance says poverty looks different to everybody

Published on April 6, 2017

Regina Younker looks over the photography book, “Our Reality Living in Poverty on P.E.I.”, which compiled some eye-opening photography from a “photo voice” exhibit at The Guild three years ago. Younker, one of the photographers, said the book and exhibit were a result of the P.E.I. Women’s Network’s former Paths to Prosperity Program, which held discussions on poverty reduction across the province. One of the powerful photos submitted by Younker, who lives on social assistance and credits her daughters with helping support her, shows the three women holding each other’s hands over her social assistance cheque.

©Mitch MacDonald/TC Media

CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. – Regina Younker is grateful to have a roof over her head, but she often wonders if there will be enough left over to put groceries in her fridge.

About 14 years ago, Younker first went on social assistance for what she believed would be six months.

Today, the 52-year-old is still on a limited income and is all too familiar with the misconception that living in poverty means living on the street.

“Poverty can be an everyday person living in a house. I have a great home. But it’s low income housing,” said Younker, who is unable to work due to a physical disability. “I live in poverty every day. And without my kids, I could be one of those people on the street.”

Younker credits her two daughters, both in their 20s, with helping to keep their house running.

However, times are still tough.

When interviewed by The Guardian, Younker said one daughter just had jaw surgery and required prescriptions that weren’t covered.

“That was $60 for medication that went out of the grocery bill,” said Younker, who also credits her church, West River United, with supporting her.

“(My kids) are helping support a house, and there’s just something so wrong with that… but I can’t change it, without a lot of other people helping.”

For years, Younker said it was difficult to talk about her situation.

But she’s since found her voice as an advocate for poverty reduction.

Younker was involved with the P.E.I. Women’s Network’s former Paths to Prosperity program, which held discussions on the issue across P.E.I. 

She was surprised both by the number of Islanders who attended the discussions, as well as their stories.

“Poverty looks different to everybody,” said Younker, noting the many “invisible barriers” like transportation, childcare, housing, mental illness and a lack of jobs often go unnoticed by others.

As those same barriers kept coming up, Younker began opening up about her own experiences.

“I started to realize I’m not the only one suffering,” she said. “There are many people struggling.”

Younker also helped “put a face” on the issue when she helped present the group’s findings to a legislative committee.

One of many stories that stuck with her, which she shared with the committee, was of a Queens County family travelling to the IWK with a sick child.

Younker said the family’s social assistance was clawed back after it was realized a community benefit helped raise travelling funds for the family.

The story was a surprise to many MLAs, she said.

“I look at government almost as an ostrich with its head in the sand,” she said. “They don’t want to look at (poverty) because if they do, they’ll have to focus on something that isn’t very good.”

Although Younker knows the issue is too big for one person to solve, she has some ideas.

More than anything, Younker would like to see either a re-structuring of social assistance or a basic guaranteed income pilot project in P.E.I.

The idea of replacing other programs with guaranteed income is currently being discussed in Ontario as possibly a more effective way to reduce poverty.

Younker feels P.E.I. would also be perfect for a pilot project.

“Within a year you would see a big change,” said Younker, knowing that poverty is often “a cycle” where someone who grows up in it is more likely to have a limited income as an adult.

It’s a cycle Younker hopes to break, for her own daughters’ sakes.

“I’m sure other people feel the same way; our kids shouldn’t be the ones taking care of us,” said Younker, who feels the first step is to keep the conversation in the spotlight. “The more people we get talking, the more we might be able to do something… you’ve got to keep slamming it down the government’s throat, what they’re doing now is not working.”

This is part of The Guardian's Price of Poverty project