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211: A Tool for Alleviating Poverty

Submitted by Natasha Pei on January 29, 2018 - 10:53am

Reliable information is critical for solving problems and driving social innovation. By combining information about community services with cutting-edge technology, 211 is creating a powerful new form of social infrastructure. As a multi-channel information and navigation system, 211 is uniquely situated at the interface between the human needs associated with poverty and society’s policy and programmatic responses. The support 211 provides is indispensable, particularly for people experiencing poverty and personal trauma who’s complex needs may pose barriers to obtaining help. Now available to more than 20 million Canadians living in large cities, small towns, and rural and remote communities, 211 will expand to reach an additional 5 million people during the first half of 2018.

This webinar will explore how 211 is increasingly being leveraged by a wide range of stakeholders – people with lived experience, social service agencies, researchers and social planners, governments and other funders – to effectively address poverty.

Watch the Recording

After the webinar we followed up with Bill, Karen and Jerilyn who have provided written responses to your additional 211 questions:

Q. Where can I get more information on (Calgary's) Financial Empowerment initiative ?

A. (Jerilyn): We are literally launching 211 as an access point to the FE movement today! Here is a link to information about Calgary’s FE collaborative on the United Way Calgary and Area’s website:


Q. Who is responsible for keeping local information current and what is the process?

A. (Karen): That is a tough one to answer succinctly.  The data management functions are performed by a wide variety of agency or municipal organizations such as County Social Services, public libraries, information centres, local United Ways, health sector organizations, legal clinics, etc.  In some jurisdictions, the data is managed centrally for the province by the 211 organization.  Data is curated regionally or provincially, and then consolidated for 211 public search and navigation support through 211 phone, text and chat platforms.


Q. Do you have a list of communities that you currently do or do not serve? You mentioned a lack of access to resources in rural communities.

A. (Karen): I think the slides – particularly Bill’s coverage slide (#10) – will point to where there are unserved areas, but I believe the point Bill was making about rural and remote communities is that local services are not abundant in those areas, not that 211 doesn’t reach them (other than those who do not yet have service at all or no phone service).


Q. Although 211 sounds like an excellent tool for managing poverty and minimizing its impact, in what way does it contribute to the elimination of poverty?

A. (Bill): 211 is not a 'cure-all' for poverty.  Nor is it a substitute for the wider range of the significant public policy reforms and societal changes required for Canada to make serious progress towards reduce, or eliminate, poverty. 

Information, however, is hugely empowering.  The accurate information, and navigational assistance, 211 provides about services, programs and community resources, significantly improves people's access to help.  

For many, information about options and access to help enables them to successfully address challenges associated with poverty and improve their lives.  In some, this help saves lives.  In other cases, it is life changing.  In many cases, it prevents the situation from deteriorating further and allows them to begin a process of rebuilding or heeling. 

We know that 211 already helps those working on the frontlines to be even more effective by putting reliable information at their fingertips. This helps them as they seek to help people experiencing poverty.  

We also know that 211's infrastructure can be further leveraged to a great deal more - provide much more intensive ongoing support to people experiencing poverty, particularly those with complex needs or who confront barriers related to trauma, stigma, location/transportation, etc.  

We have only just scratched the surface in terms of the how the need, demand demographic data 211 captures, can be utilized to improve the human services system and inform investments designed to alleviate poverty or transform lives.  There is a dearth of solid information about the consumer experience and the effectiveness of the programs and services currently in place to help people experiencing poverty.  In addition, the data 211 generates about unmet needs, provides factual evidence illustrating what people need and unfortunately don't have.  

The scale of poverty, as well as its complex and depth, should not be minimize.  211 is playing an important role, and can be leveraged to generate additional benefits, particularly for those who are marginalized. it is, however, only one small part of what's need to eliminate poverty.


Q. Are there any plans to expand public funding for 211 to help reduce the fundraising burden on local United Ways and their partners?

A. (Bill): Yes. Many people across Canada are working hard to bring more funders, particularly governments, into the 211 partnership in order to expand 211 service, and build public awareness about 211. 

Some provinces and municipalities are 211 funding partners. The federal government does not currently fund 211. United Way believes they should join the 211 funding partnership, and has proposed that 211 be included in Canada's new Poverty Reduction Strategy (as it is in some provincial Poverty Reduction Plans).

The federal government is uniquely positions to help making 211 available to all Canadians, and transform 211 into a seamless national service delivery system.  This will not happen without federal government participation. 

A very modest federal commitment - $5 million per year - will spur Canada-wide expansion. It will also encourage more provinces and municipalities to join the 211 funding partnership.


Take Your Learning Further:

  • Get involved with 211 by helping to spread the word! The 211 Day (national campaign) will take place February 7-12, 2018. Share the message online or in-person with the help of this Ambassador's Toolkit.