Sept. 25, 2019

What financial literacy means — on $1,400 a month

Photovoice project captures images and stories of older immigrants’ thoughts on financial literacy
shadow of a man
Photos capture how immigrants feel about their place in society, the places and services they value. Courtesy Ilyan Ferrer

If you only had $1,400 a month to live on, how would you spend it?

On Monday, Oct. 7, 6 to 8:30 p.m., the Faculty of Social Work’s popular Positive Disruption series continues with a special, free photovoice exhibit at the National Music Centre’s Studio Bell (850 - 4 St. SE.) The innovative exhibition, entitled Exploring the Financial Literacy of Older Immigrants in Calgary: A Photovoice Project, is part of a research project led by social work professor Dr. Ilyan Ferrer, PhD, whose research focuses on the intersections between immigration, aging and labour.

Ferrer gave cameras to older immigrants and taught them how to use them. He then asked them to take pictures of things that captured what the term “financial literacy” meant to them.

Some participants said, ‘Well, I don't know what financial literacy is,” says Ferrer, “can you give me more guidance?’ And we would say, “If you had a pension of $1,400, what would you spend that money on?

"$1,400 usually represents the amount that older immigrants would receive on a monthly basis for old-age security and guaranteed income supplement*. Of course, $1,400 isn't enough to cover rent, the cost of living and other responsibilities.”

For the record, the Government of Canada characterizes financial literacy as having the knowledge, skills and confidence to make responsible financial decisions. It encompasses the ability to manage funds, navigate online banking systems and to understand investments. For most of the research participants in Ferrer’s study, financial literacy meant something quite different.

“That’s what this project is trying to do,” says Ferrer. “To expand on some of those relationships and complexities around finance by saying, ‘Well, maybe financial literacy understanding how to manage funds — isn't necessarily a question of whether they know how to do it or not. But rather to show how policies are structured so that they’re a barrier for older adults.”

Research outlines common threads in older immigrants’ experience

Ferrer says there were a few common threads in the research. Many pointed to the tension created by dependency periods where sponsors are financially responsible for the person they sponsor. For newly arrived, older immigrants, the dependency period is 20 years, during which they are ineligible for any government benefit payments. As Ferrer explains, not many Canadians are aware that the dependency period was recently doubled from 10 years.

“Many of the participants were talking about how structurally dependent they were on their adult child,” says Ferrer. “This dynamic created difficult situations and dynamics where older adults didn't feel that they were equal. They were beholden to their child to ask for items or would have to ask their child for money to go somewhere.

“Photos can say a thousand different things. What these photographs do is provide a very pointed visual account of what's important to them.”

Portraits of resilience

Taken together the photos assemble a collage of how older immigrants feel about their place in society and their role in their new home country. The photovoice approach is ideally suited for this kind of project because it allows participants to explain, in their own words, the meaning of the images they provide. This helps to provide insight while overcoming language or cultural barriers.

The diverse photos include things like the communities the seniors are a part of, shopping centres, community centres, and cultural dance clubs. They also underline the value of free spaces like the public library as community-building places where older adults can socialize and take advantage of free and available programs.

Pictures of grocery shopping show the tension between the healthy produce they would like to buy and the on-sale merchandise they can afford. A simple photo of a thermos in a store reflects the taken-for-granted purchases people have and the conversations sponsored older immigrants have with their adult children. There are also pictures of grandchildren playing, reflecting the vital role that many of these older adults play in supporting their families with child care.

Overall the images suggest resiliency. Ferrer says that little research has been done to understand the complexities facing older immigrants who contribute to the local economy. For example, they often work for years in service industries, or as labourers where they don’t have the opportunity to increase their pension contributions. In addition, many of the research participants also support families in their homeland.

A need to rethink Canadian attitudes

Ferrer explains that the stories and photos shared “are incredibly brave and speak about commitment to family and being part of a transnational family unit. Those stories weren't being represented in the academic literature or even how policy-makers think about immigrant seniors. Oftentimes when Canadians think about immigrant, racialized seniors, we often think about how we need to restrict. That’s often how policy-makers think about racialized seniors. How do we surveil and ensure they're not a burden to the financial or health-care system.

"In reality, they are significant contributors to Canadian society. They provide child care and are oftentimes seen as the cultural stewards to their communities. They contribute to the local and transnational economy.”

*One would receive the maximum combined OAS and GIS of $1,514.76 if they lived in Canada for 40 years