Poverty in Calgary: Hidden in plain sight and reaching every corner of the city

With surging inflation and lack of assistance, poverty rates in the city are high

By Ashley Pfeifer | November 2, 2022 |5:00 am

According to recent Statistics Canada data, prices of groceries and food are skyrocketing. Alberta saw a 9.2 per cent increase and housing costs were up 6.2 per cent.

Photo: Shutterstock

Calgary has faced many challenges over the last few years, including the pandemic.

While the city is getting back to normal and recovering from the consequences COVID caused, many Calgarians are still dealing with another crisis: food insecurity.  

Poverty and food insecurity are widespread issues that have left their mark in every ward of the city. 

“Despite being ranked as one of the top places in the world to live, Calgary has a significant number of population living in or near poverty,” says Yvette Biggs, vice president of marketing and communications at United Way of Calgary and Area

“One in five Calgarians say that they’re struggling to easily buy food and groceries… and 30 per cent are struggling to afford basic [needs], like rent and utilities.” 

Pandemic-induced challenges

The pandemic caused a multitude of problems for the city, its residents, and businesses alike. 

“We’ve never had this before, a pandemic followed by an affordability crisis,” says Meaghon Reid, executive director for Enough for All.

“I would argue that our affordability crisis is worse on people in poverty than the pandemic was because at least then we had things like CERB and there was a lot of community support,” Reid adds. 

Basic needs are not being met and the city’s social service sector is feeling the shock wave. 

“Anyone can be vulnerable to [poverty] at any time,” Biggs says. 

“It’s been very tough for frontline workers, as they’re continuing to deal with the complexity of what the last two years have bought… and seeing people that they would not usually see wanting or needing their services.”

Yvette Biggs, vice president of marketing and communications for United Way of Calgary and Area.

Poverty isn’t always obvious 

Poverty is often linked with negative conditions and stereotypes about how it looks. For example, some people might link poverty to homelessness when that isn’t always the case. 

Instead, it is often hidden in plain sight.  

“The society we’re in has this vision of poverty as the guy on the street or someone asking for change. That’s actually rarely what it looks like,” Reid says. 

“It’s happening behind the bungalows, down every street, and dorm rooms… It looks like people who seem to have it together, but they’re constantly running numbers in their head about what they have to trade off just to make ends meet.” 

One of the factors that has caused a spike in poverty in the city has been the increasingly high inflation rate. 

Monthly expenses on top of food, including gas and rent, have gone up on average six per cent, while wages are falling far behind at only a one per cent increase, Reid explains. 

“Trips to go to the grocery store [that would normally] be $30 for groceries are now $60.” 

Tough decisions 

The rise in prices has forced people to sacrifice nutrition and quality to try and keep food on their tables. 

Lack of nutrition, especially for children in poverty, can cause health issues that do not just negatively impact individuals, but society as a whole. 

“We pay for this in other ways, like in our health-care system. If you’re eating non-nutritious food for a month, that affects most parts of your life. And if you’re a kid, it’s harder to learn and harder to stay in school and stay awake,” Reid says. 

While poverty affects the city as a whole, visible minorities, which make up 34 per cent of the population, are severely impacted as they account for 48 per cent of people at risk, according to Biggs.

“Indigenous people make up three per cent of Calgary’s population, and over 40 per cent of those are living either [unhoused] or in poverty,” Biggs adds. 

Working together 

Systems are in place to bring food to those in poverty, however, many factors are not taken into consideration.

“[Certain food delivery systems] do not necessarily offer culturally based or appropriate food. And so [Indigenous peoples’] ability to access it gets less and less…We’re just not equipped to serve and support the Indigenous community in the way that we should be,” Reid says. 

Organizations such as United Way of Calgary and Area and Enough for All are working together on solutions for the current poverty crisis. 

Just as one would follow a contaminated river upstream to find the problem and clean it to once again have fresh flowing water, United Way of Calgary and Area has a similar approach to poverty reduction. 

“The upstream approach works on issues before they get to be a problem,” Biggs says. “We try and hit the upstream so that people don’t get to that place where they have to access services.”

The upstream approach includes programs like All in for Youth, which provides mentorship and services to youth in order to decrease the dropout rate. 

Enough for All focuses on systemic problems that are forcing people toward the edge of poverty. 

“A lot of people don’t recognize they’re oppressed by the system and that there’s probably not much they could have done to get ahead,” Reid says. 

Meaghon Reid, executive director for Enough for All.
Meaghon Reid, executive director for Enough for All.

Poverty reduction solutions 

Systems can cause poverty through a lack of good education, social injustice, and lack of employment. 

“Our whole goal is to change the systems that keep poverty in place… If we could change those systems, we can end chronic poverty forever,” she adds. 

However, goals as big as systematic changes can take quite a long time. 

“When I hire people on this team, I ask if they’re comfortable not seeing the results of their work until they have grandkids,” Reid says. “[We are] changemakers in a slow but high impact way.” 

While organizations are working on solutions for poverty reduction, Calgarians also play a big role. 

“Calgarians are so compassionate and so generous,” Biggs says, adding people can help by volunteering, learning about the issue, and getting involved in their community.

Poverty is often hidden behind closed doors, therefore getting to know one’s neighbour is a key strategy in poverty reduction, Reid explains. 

Empathy can go a long way 

Not only are volunteering, donating, and getting involved in the community effective ways to reduce poverty, but opening up the conversation to end the stigma is also important. 

Reid says the more we decrease the personal responsibility angle on poverty and talk about it openly, the more people will ask for help. 

“I wonder often about the number of people that aren’t asking for help because they’re afraid or they’re ashamed.” 

Poverty can be an isolating state for those suffering, so open communication and empathy can go a long way. 

“You are not alone, and you don’t realize how not alone you are,” Reid says. “The great majority of services in the city meet you with compassion and respect.”

For help accessing food and basic needs, call 211.

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Ashley Pfeifer

Ashley Pfeifer is an intern at Calgary Citizen.

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