According to a new report by Vibrant Communities Calgary, considerable numbers of Calgarians remain impoverished.
The 2021 Poverty Snapshot in Calgary indicates that despite overall declining rates of poverty, nearly 10 per cent of Calgarians live below the poverty line.
For a family of four, that line is just under $40,000 per year.
“Poverty exists throughout our city and affects each of our neighbours differently,” said Meaghon Reid, Executive Director for Vibrant Communities Calgary.
“We have to shake our idea of what poverty looks like in our city, because it’s happening everywhere,” she said.
Some of the report highlights include an increase in food bank use by 44 per cent from 2019, poverty affects single people the most, and the extent to which affordable housing is needed in Calgary.
The organization has also incorporated new sources of data this year into their report. Sector-specific information generated by other organizations has been used to provide a clearer picture of the extent of poverty in Calgary.
“We’ve done quite a bit of evaluation with people living in poverty over the course of this year, and that voice of lived experience is so important in this work,” said Reid.
The full report is available on enoughforall.ca.
Poverty a solvable problem
Reid said that there are concrete policy decisions that can be made towards ending poverty.
“Poverty is a solvable problem,” she said.
Reid said that there have been success stories where successful policy implementation has led to a reduction in poverty, and from the outcomes associated with poverty.
“We saw that in relation to child poverty for example with the Alberta Child and Family benefit, and then the Canadian Child Benefit,” she said.
The report highlights the overall trend downwards for poverty amongst children, crediting the decrease to the benefit programs.
Reid also pointed out the positive impacts from the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit to keep people out of poverty during the early part of the pandemic.
“Mental health calls to the Calgary Counseling Center for that income bracket that was receiving CERB went down significantly,” she said.
Although, she said, with CERB now ended, mental health issues would likely rise for those people, alongside the trend in the general population.
Looking at provincial policy as a solution for poverty
The 2021 Poverty Snapshot report identified many of the areas that could lead to a reduction of poverty as being under provincial jurisdiction. Though, she said, it was important to not look at poverty like a “jurisdictional football.”
She said that much of the multi-jurisdictional flow-through dollars for housing are held at the provincial level. So too are programs like Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH).
“The city can only do so much, for example, in terms of accessing rapid housing initiatives dollars from the federal government, if the provincial government is not providing some operating funds for those,” she said.
“It’s tricky, right, because we have a city purview and we have the city Poverty Reduction Strategy.”
Vibrant Communities Calgary is also calling on the federal and provincial governments to change rules surrounding earned income exemptions.
“So there’s actually no benefit to do much work, or to seek work, or attachment to the labor force—if that’s what someone chooses—if you’re on income supports, because you actually get radically dinged for that in terms of clawbacks,” said Reid.
She said that changing those rules would have a significant impact on reducing poverty.
The policy suggestions that Vibrant Communities Calgary creates are directly formed from the experiences of those in poverty in Calgary.
“It’s one of our biggest principles; that we elevate the voice of lived experience, and that we cannot suggest or implement solutions that are not led and informed by people who are living in poverty,” said Reid.
“Oftentimes, there’s a huge gap between the solutions that policymakers … think are the solutions, are often not the solutions that are that are being asked for people that live in poverty.”
Inflation pressures on Calgarians
One of the policy suggestions that Vibrant Communities Calgary has also made in its report is to return to inflation-indexed income supports in the province.
Indexing based on inflation was ended by the Alberta Government for AISH in 2019. Currently the program is providing income support to a maximum of 85 per cent of the poverty line.
"Because we stopped as a province indexing income support, we're just seeing the disparity increase every time those inflation numbers go up," said Reid.
It was reported by Reuters that Canada's annual inflation rate hit 4.8 per cent on Wednesday, the highest it has been in three decades.
The 2021 Poverty Snapshot report noted the impact that inflation has had on both food and housing costs.
It indicated that food prices have risen by more than 4 per cent, resulting in an increase of over $70 per month extra for families purchasing groceries.
"The average Calgarian knows what $10 at the grocery store get you today versus pre-pandemic is wildly different," said Reid.
Food bank visits rise, poor Calgarians forgo food
From 2019, there has been an increase in demand for foodbank use, and the number of food security agencies meeting that demand in Calgary. Currently, there are, according to Reid, almost 200 food security agencies across Calgary.
"The number we see today is double what it was prior to the pandemic," she said.
Visits to the Calgary Food Bank have also increased by 44 per cent since 2019. From the Calgary Food Bank's 2020-2021 Annual Report, the agency delivered over 88,000 emergency food hampers last year, representing 4.1 million meals—the equivalent of 3.4 meals for every citizen of Calgary.
Anecdotally, Vibrant Communities Calgary was told of Calgarians in poverty who have forgone meals.
"We hear about people who are not eating so that their kids can eat, or who are portioning down their meals in a significant way, and so we always tried to make sure that we're sharing that story along with the 44 per cent increase usage of the food bank," said Reid.
She said that the increase in demand and the increase in food security agencies were unprecedented in the city's history.
"Professional people are making decisions about whether they can eat through the month."
Affordable housing needed
More than 81,000 households in the city are in need of affordable housing, according to the report. The criteria to meet that need is when a household spends over 30 per cent of income on shelter, and earn less than $63,267 per year.
"We learned that we rank among the lowest in Canada for affordable housing supply, and that we actually need over 80,000 affordable housing units, just to keep pace with where we're at," said Reid.
The consumer price index of homeownership has risen in the city to over double the base starting point in 2002.
The report indicated that the housing supply available for low-income Calgarians was among the lowest in the country when compared to other cities.
Many Calgarians new to poverty
The numbers of Calgarians who have become impoverished because of the pandemic, and are now learning to navigate the social support system, surprised Vibrant Communities Calgary.
"The poverty landscape is really difficult to navigate, and services are really difficult to navigate, and so we tend to see a lot of examples in the last six months where people are reaching out and saying 'I don't even know where to start—I don't know where to start," said Reid.
The 2021 Poverty Snapshot also includes a ward-by-ward breakdown of poverty in the city. Data indicates that all wards in the city have at minimum several hundreds of requests to 211 to have basic needs met.
The report indicates that single individuals, Black, Indigenous, or people of colour, women, and low-wage workers have been the hardest hit by poverty trends during the pandemic.
Those with families have fared better than those without, largely as a result of programs available to support families and children.
"Oftentimes, what that looks like for somebody who is single is that they just don't have access to a lot of the formal financial supports," said Reid.
"A lot of the services in any city—not limited to Calgary—are not extended to single people."
Reid said that one way addressing this was changing the perspective from a charity model to a social justice model.
"The charitable model is helping people by the time they're already in trouble, and charities are amazing—we would not be functioning as a society without a lot of the charitable organizations we have in this city," she said.
"But by the time you're already accessing a food bank, a shelter, and or any other of those support services, you are already sort of deeply in trouble."
The social justice model and systemic work, said Reid, doesn't always have the same emotional appeal but is vital to stopping people from falling into poverty.
"We really need to be focusing on that so that we don't need charities in the future," she said.