Tyler Peacock looks like an average man you might pass walking in downtown Calgary. Well- dressed, well-groomed and always has something witty to say. You would never guess that Peacock and his family are struggling to make ends meet.
Peacock works at a local grocery store for $19 an hour – the maximum pay for his job. With a wife at home taking care of three children, his mounting responsibilities to be a family man battle with his ability to be economically stable.
“In general, retail pays enough to make it difficult for you to leave and not enough to make a person comfortable until you hit upper levels of employment within the company,”said Peacock.
He lives in affordable housing with his family, waiting on the day when he can move them to a more stable living situation.
“We have three children and I make under the wage bracket that is the cut-off for government support per child. What I make is the portion that is given to us to provide child support because what I make is not enough to keep us where we are.”
Tyler’s wife Carolyn currently works as a full-time caregiver to her young children. To further complicate the situation, one of the Peacock kids is on the autism spectrum.
Peacock’s dream is to be a full-time musician and support his wife in furthering her education. But he has had to put his dreams on hold to keep his family afloat. They operate just above the poverty line but are firmly held by poverty. Anything ranging from medical bills to a speeding ticket could put them under the line. And the Peacock family aren’t the only Calgarians suffering.
A lot of people in the city are living just above or below the poverty line. Groups such as Vibrant Communities Calgary are trying to change that. But the fact that many people don’t recognize what poverty is or how it’s caused is standing in the way.
Poverty is widespread in in the city. In a press release, Vibrant Communities Calgary said 10 per cent of residents — or 122,000 of the 1.2 million people in the city — are currently poor.
“Vibrant Communities is really looking to create a systems change to make sure people don’t fall through the cracks.”
— Meaghan Reid
“Living in poverty is an issue that runs much deeper than the homeless population of Calgary as they are deprived of the resources, means and choices necessary to acquire and maintain the basic standards of living.”
Moreover, Vibrant Communities states, “Every four in 10 Calgarians are just a single missing paycheque away from poverty.” And that problem may get even worse thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has pushed many of the city’s residents into unemployment.
Those individuals come from all walks of life, according to Jordan Knapp, a former social worker/policy analyst for the Calgary Homeless Foundation.
Knapp says he regularly sees people who he knows “from their files that they are experiencing poverty or homelessness.” However,“they will always present themselves in a way that I wouldn’t assume they are experiencing homelessness.”
That could be because poverty has an image problem.
“When you feel like you’re in the middle class and you’re able to pay your rent but you’re living paycheque to paycheque still, you don’t want to feel like someone who can’t pay your bills or support yourself or your family the way you want to. I think that [poverty] is quite stigmatized and so while people might recognize it in their own context, I don’t think it’s being talked about,” Knapp said.
Vibrant Communities is a not-for-profit advocacy group trying to help reduce and eliminate poverty in the city.
In their poverty reduction strategy, Enough for All 2.0, the group identifies 10 key levers that pull people out of poverty: early-learning and care, employment, financial empowerment, adult literacy and foundational learning, housing, food security, income support, justice, physical and mental health and transportation.
But one of the biggest obstacles is the difference between a living wage and minimum wage.
The Alberta provincial government raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2018. This raise helped increase the quality of life for some Calgarians. But there is a distinct difference between a minimum wage and a living wage.
As the name would imply, the minimum wage is set by the provincial government to legally compel companies and employers to pay their workers a base income. By contrast, a living wage is a calculation of the cost of living in a community based on factors such as transportation, location and childcare. In 2017, Vibrant Communities concluded the living wage for Calgary was $18.15 per hour without benefits and $17.00 per hour with benefits.
Lee Stevans and Meaghan Reid both work at Vibrant Communities displaying. Photo: Isaiah Lindo
The gap between the living wage and minimum wage could be where some Calgarians that suffer with poverty reside. Vibrant Communities hopes to break this cycle that keeps families in a constant state of worry by working to improve income support. “Vibrant Communities is really looking to create a systems change to make sure people don’t fall through the cracks,” said Meaghan Reid, the executive director.
But filling those cracks is hard because the social stigma surrounding poverty causes some Calgarians to not recognize that they might be struggling.
“The last thing you want to do is identify with a group that you have been taught that ‘they don’t work’ or whatever negative stereotype there is of people experiencing poverty,” Knapp said.
This stigma and lack of education makes creating change around poverty hard to accomplish.
“The lack of education is a roadblock. If I look at you and say, ‘Well, you just didn’t try hard enough,’ then I’m not going to be compelled to help you out. So we need to create this community that understands poverty,”said Reid.
The initial goal of the Enough For All 2.0 strategy is to“have something in place so that the City of Calgary can start to take ownership over poverty in their own city, which they hadn’t really on a scale like this before,”said Lee Stevens, Vibrant Communities’ community engagement specialist.
Ultimately, the end goal is to completely eradicate Calgary’s poverty rate, which Reid and Stevens believe is achievable.
“Absolutely, we have the means. We absolutely have enough, that’s why our vision is a community where there is enough for all, because we have enough.”