Roderick Benns recently interviewed Tanya Beattie, a public health promoter with Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington Public Health. In this wide ranging interview, Beattie discusses her own lived experience with poverty, the social determinants of health, and a basic income guarantee policy.
Benns: You have had lived poverty experience – can you talk a little about your background? Where did you grow up? What are some key experiences from your childhood that stayed with you?
Beattie: Yes, I was born, educated, and now work in Kingston, Ontario. I spent much of my growing up years living in the north end, which is known as Rideau Heights here, with my mother and periodically also with her family. We moved around a fair bit. My family did not have much and struggled on a day-to-day basis to provide the basics. This left a distinct impression on me and my development and how I viewed — and continue to view — the world.
Specifically, I seemed to understand from a young age that my life was not normal, that it wasn’t normal to not have food in the house, to spend so much time on my own even as a very young child, to know that alcohol could change people and their choices about what was important — that even those who were supposed to protect and care for you could be incapable of actually doing so.
I saw the struggle, even though I couldn’t possibly understand the details or the impacts it had on the emotional and physical well-being of my family. But I knew it was wrong. This knowledge, however, couldn’t protect me from the developmental trauma I experienced as a child living in very adverse conditions for healthy development. I was very lucky to have had such positive experiences at school. I was a good student, was liked by my teachers and was able to make lots of friends. School was my real home, my safe place, a family that supported and encouraged me to try and made me believe I could do anything. Without it I can honestly say I have no idea what would have happened to me, I doubt I would have been anywhere near as successful in making a life of my own.
Benns: How did these experiences shape who you became?
Beattie: These experiences left a tremendous void in my development. Trauma I experienced has made my life challenging in ways that I am only now beginning to understand. It has also made it possible for me to see the world through a very different lens. Where others spend decades developing an understanding of how living conditions truly impact lives, with some never actually being able to comprehend or empathize, I came by this through my lived experiences.
Some may call this anecdotal evidence, and they would be right. But sometimes anecdotal evidence proves to be no less accurate than highly rigorous research studies — which in the case of the social determinants of health at first feels anecdotal, or perhaps even obvious, but yet too big to do anything about it. We now know that living in adverse conditions has negative and long lasting effects on us. Particularly children, but adults as well will suffer poor physical and mental health outcomes when their basic needs and ability to participate in society are limited. A study in the US that looked at adverse childhood experiences really demonstrates how health outcomes are impacted by living experiences and the more adverse they are, the more likely it is that individuals will suffer in the future.
All of this has made me into a person who wants to help make things better. I also see the possible reasons why people do the things they do — even the hurtful ‘bad’ things. So I try particularly hard not to judge others, even those who have done me harm personally. I do not blame them, even though I do feel anger about it. I recently heard a very accurate statement — hurt people hurt people. It is a logical and natural consequence that makes it impossible for me to place blame on anyone, aside from perhaps those who work directly to create the legislation and public policies that build the foundations for society.
Benns: You’re a public health promoter in Kingston now. Did you make a conscious choice to go into this field because of your own upbringing? Do you ever see echoes of your own childhood experiences in the people you meet?
Beattie: Interestingly I did not make a conscious choice to end up working in this area, but when I look back at the path that I took it would seem like there was some kind of unconscious plan being followed. I have been working in public health for almost 13 years, specifically in the area of reducing harms and deaths related to alcohol use. I see reflections of my own childhood experiences, but not always directly, as the majority of my time is spent at a desk.
Yet in the research and strategies I help develop, and in everything I do I try to maintain a sense of the real world and what types of roles, influences and struggles people must go through when making decisions. It is never so simple as an individual’s personal responsibility. I bring my understanding of the struggles individuals face when trying to achieve success in life. This often means healthy choices are not often a direct priority. Working with the community to help work on what individuals need is always where I start from. It isn’t always the easiest route to take but it is always the right route.
Benns: How would a basic income guarantee policy have changed life for your family, when you were growing up? What different decisions may have been taken? What different paths may have been chosen?
Beattie: A basic income guarantee would have changed a lot of things for my life. My parents wouldn’t have had to struggle for our very basic needs; maybe they wouldn’t have divorced; maybe I wouldn’t have been exposed to traumatizing violent events; maybe I would have had a stable, safe and secure home with healthy and nutritious food; maybe my parents wouldn’t have had to choose between working and leaving me alone by myself when I was far too young to be left alone. Or, perhaps my mother and father would have separated from one another sooner had they had the income to support themselves individually, which would have decreased the violence and awfulness to which we were all exposed. So many pleasant possibilities. It’s difficult to gauge where we all would have ended up, had we each had the benefit of a basic income guarantee, but I am sure our potential and opportunities in life were diminished without it.
Benns: Why do you fight for a basic income guarantee policy today?
Beattie: I have been working for most of my life in one way or another to help make the world a better, safer and more equitable place. There is so much to do, so many ways to contribute time to this, that as most people eventually figure out, one must focus energies in one area. This has always been a challenge for me, so I have ended up choosing to focus on basic income because I see it as the best way to effect the biggest change for the most people. I am a two-birds-with-one-stone kind of person, and a basic income would hit many birds so to speak — it would give people the means to meet their individual needs while maintaining dignity and respect. This doesn’t mean that other important public policies that will improve the social determinants of health, such as the living wage movement, should be ignored of course, and I am glad there are others working on this as well.