Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative aims to address root causes seeking long-term solutions

What do we imagine when we think of the word poverty?

Some of us may visualize the panhandler begging on the street; the saxophone player guarding the pocket change in his precious instrument’s case; the person inhabiting the dilapidated box on the side of the road.

But for one city alderman, there’s more to the word poverty than just being poor.

“Poverty is more than not having money,” said Ald. Gael MacLeod. “Poverty can be a mindset, when we talk about intergenerational poverty. Poverty can be a situation of circumstance. It’s so much more than just not having enough money to buy groceries: that’s the symptom.

“How does that happen to anybody in a first world country?” she said.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi posed similar questions in his State of the City Address on Jan. 17 at a Rotary Club luncheon:

“Why is it that with all the interventions that we’ve done, with all the great stories of success that governments and non-profit agencies can point to in terms of helping individuals and families get out of poverty, why do the rates of poverty in the community not change? Why is it that child poverty in particular remains stubbornly high? What is it about the system that isn’t working?” he said.Poverty is about more than not having money. The Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative will address the root causes of poverty in an attempt to alleviate them in the long term.
Photo Credit: George Mach, from United Way Calgary and Area’s 2010 Urban Exposure Project.

What can be done?

In order to answer this question, the City and United Way have each contributed $200,000 to put together an 18-member Stewardship Committee of leaders from three major sectors of the city: business, government and non-profit, said Loreen Gilmour, director of poverty and research initiatives at the United Way.

“This committee is solely focused on root causes, systemic change, and long-term solutions to at least alleviate or reduce poverty,” MacLeod, one committee member, said. “I don’t know how unique we are as a city in tackling this, but I can tell you that as far as I know, [in Calgary] there has been no single, concentrated effort that brings the three sectors together that focuses purely on long-term, systemic change.”

The committee held its first meeting on Jan. 20 to discuss their plan for the next 18 months.

 “Somehow, this has to touch everybody. And it’s not about a donation to charity; it’s about helping people feel good about themselves and positive and hopeful about the life they have ahead of them.”
— Ald. Gael MacLeod

It will work towards identifying and finding solutions for the root causes of poverty, at the end of the 18 months, they will issue a report to city council, said Gilmour:

“There are a number of things that we know make people more likely to end up in poverty – if they don’t speak English, if they don’t have marketable job skills, perhaps they’re an immigrant and their qualifications aren’t recognized, finding affordable childcare, people with disabilities,” she said.

How is poverty measured?

One of the ways it is measured is through looking at the low-income cut-off, said Steve Allan, committee co-chair.

In Calgary, that is $22,000 for a single person and $34,000 for a family of three. Any person who makes below these incomes is considered to be living in poverty. And according to Gilmour, there are approximately 150,000 Calgary residents who qualify by these standards.

“There are lots of deep social issues that can make someone more vulnerable to falling into poverty,” she said. “We will be calling upon the whole community to help us with these efforts.”

MacLeod said, “We need to move from charity to building people’s resiliency. It’s not a question of just feeding the poor; it’s how do you create the resiliency in an individual for them to get back on their feet again and hold that position so that they feel good about themselves and are contributing to society in a healthy and happy way?

“I want to see every citizen in Calgary getting involved,” she continued.

“Somehow, this has to touch everybody. And it’s not about a donation to charity; it’s about helping people feel good about themselves and positive and hopeful about the life they have ahead of them.”

Allan said that he thinks the timing couldn’t be better:

“One of the things you need for an initiative like this to succeed is a political will. You combine that with a partnership with the United Way, who understands the issues and the problems, has done a bunch of research, who themselves have significant resources that they pull from the community – not only financial, but all of their connections and research– and you put that in a partnership with the city, and it creates great timing.

“So I think there is a real opportunity to make differences now – to come up with something that will be significant and meaningful,” he said.

lhallet@cjournal.ca