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Supporting rural, low-income mothers in Nova Scotia: Pandemic lessons

The COVID-19 pandemic affected the lives of all Canadians, but it disproportionally affected rural, low-income mothers and their families.

October 17, 2022

3-minute read

An increase in the burden of care, job loss, and closure of school and child care added extra strain for families that rely on community organizations and institutions for financial and social support.

These challenges were further compounded for families living in rural communities where the norm was inadequate internet access, sparse or non-existent public transportation, and needing to travel longer distances to reach essential services.

These pre-existing inequities that complicated rural low-income mothers' capacity to support their families during the pandemic were central to a recent research project over the fall and winter of 2020-2021.

A research team from Acadia University and UNB interviewed 29 mothers who identify as low-income and rural within Kings County, Nova Scotia. Researchers asked them about their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic and their access to support, including recreation provisions. This blog is a summary of some of the key findings.

Rather than showing new areas of inequality, COVID-19 served to highlight and amplify existing inequalities.

As one staff member of a community organization shared, "It made us realize that a lot of these barriers that became more apparent during the pandemic actually existed without the pandemic too."

These existing inequities ranged from internet inequities and digital divides to food insecurity to experiences of racism and lack of support for children with disabilities and their parents. These inequities were often exacerbated for those living in rural areas with already limited access to transportation, internet, and community support.

"Because I'm low-income, I can't afford the internet, so I don't have it," says Pauline, a single mother of one. Ultimately, the COVID-19 pandemic unduly affected rural low-income mothers and their families.

While recreation is not often considered an essential service during a crisis, research has proven that recreation and leisure play an important role in buffering the adverse effects of stress and supporting overall health and well-being. A positive finding in the research was the innovative approaches to the parks and recreation services provided and the mechanisms to provide them in Kentville.

With the help of partner organizations, the town of Kentville Parks and Recreation was able to adapt and serve many rural, low-income families. These recreation provisions helped bring these families entertainment, fun, meaning, and physical activity during this difficult time.

While these findings are important, so was the research design. Through a Feminist Community Action Research approach (FCAR), the research team involved a diverse Community Advisory Committee (CAC) throughout the research process to consult and collaborate on aspects of the project ranging from the research questions to the best channels and methods of knowledge mobilization. The committee included representatives from the town, community organizations, and low-income mothers to refine project objectives.

FCAR provides an avenue for mothers to participate and voice their experiences of the impact the pandemic has had and continues to have on them and their families. The mothers defined the supports that are important to them and were a part of addressing the recreation and leisure services that support their family's well-being.

Limited research has been conducted on the effect of COVID-19 on rural populations. If this gap is left unaddressed, policies and programs for recovery could be ill-informed, leaving rural communities to suffer the consequences. As a result, our research filled a vital gap in research and community practice.

Importantly, our research found that low-income mothers were forced into a balancing act concerning paid and unpaid work. Many mothers in this study were challenged by insecure employment, the shift to online schooling, and facilitating entertainment at home.

Furthermore, low-income mothers faced many constraints in facilitating leisure, as they lacked the resources necessary. As a result, they struggled to have access to leisure activities, which could help to cope with the stress of the pandemic.

As Analyn, a Filipino mother of two, stated, "I think recreation actually would be the last one on the budget. If I don't get free access to it, I mean with no resources, I think we just stay at home and just use what we have."

In Nova Scotia, where this study took place, all parks and trails were closed to reduce the spread of COVID-19. These closures impacted mothers' ability to facilitate leisure for their families. As a result of the closures, many mothers felt stuck or trapped in their houses as they did not have private outdoor leisure spaces, such as a backyard.

Governments must implement policies that are responsive to gender and geographic differences to best support rural low-income mothers and their recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Based on the findings, policies and provisions could include the redistribution of resources and funds to support equitable access to recreation for rural low-income mothers. Further, governments need to ensure rural communities have access to adequate and accessible childcare to support mothers' capacity to remain employed. Finally, digital infrastructure needs to be implemented by governments to address the digital divide that exists.

This research was funded through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

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