4 Things We Know About Poverty

Submitted by Calgary on July 13, 2016 - 2:28am


Tonight, I want to talk about 4 things we absolutely know about poverty. My hope is that when we leave here tonight, we will all agree on these 4 things and will know with confidence that when we talk about poverty in Calgary, and more importantly as we work to solve it, that we do so, knowing these 4 things.

We must own knowledge based on research, experience, and what our collective years of doing this work have taught us. I chose to focus on this message because too often when it comes to poverty we focus on what we don’t know and the aspects of poverty that make it so difficult to tackle. However, I would like every single person to leave here tonight knowing that there are things we absolutely know to be true about poverty and that we can move forward together with that shared knowledge.

Just as we know that a working single mom needs childcare, just as we know that people need reliable transportation to get to work on time, and just as we know that children can’t learn if they are hungry, we know the 4 things I will talk about tonight to be absolutely true.

Thanks to the work of Wilkinson and Pickett, we now know, without a doubt that high levels of income inequality yield poor outcomes at all income levels. This kind of definitive knowledge inspired me to talk about what we know about poverty. This is knowledge that we need to stop debating, we need to move the discourse forward and as people who care about seeing an end to poverty in our societies, it is our responsibility to take the lead and push the conversation about poverty further.

So, what do we know about poverty?

The 1st of 4 things we know about poverty is that:

1. We absolutely can’t address poverty without addressing income

We do a disservice to people living in poverty when we diminish this fact. At the absolute core of poverty is lack of income.

Measures of quality of life, deprivation, and happiness are often used to describe poverty, and they are important for understanding effects of poverty; but when we try to use them as measures of poverty itself, we stray from the core issue. At the very base of identifying poverty is lack of income.

Currently we don’t have a poverty line in Canada so we use proxy measures – Low Income Measure, Low Income Cut Off and Market Basket Measure are proxy measures in place of a poverty line and they are all valid measures of low-income but the lack of an agreed income measure of poverty is a very serious void in understanding a true income cut-off that reflects poverty in Calgary’s context. And context is indeed important, we know that relative poverty, absolute poverty, and depth of poverty all matter in what poverty looks like in a community. We must choose shared measurements and move forward.

Some might argue that lack of money isn’t at the root of poverty, that somehow low income doesn’t necessarily mean a person is poor – I want to be very clear, they’re wrong. That idea is wrong. Additional supports and access to resources may reduce the effects of poverty, but it is still poverty. We can’t address poverty without addressing income.

The 2nd of 4 things we know about poverty is that:

2. Poverty is a complex problem with interlocking causes and effects and solutions must also be interlocking, they must be comprehensive, and preventive.

We appreciate the complexity of poverty and that solutions are not straightforward. But we can achieve a sustained reduction in the number of people living in poverty. We know this because other provinces are making progress with comprehensive strategies, most notably Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador. Comprehensive plans are key since we know that there is no one way into poverty and therefore no one way out of it. These kinds of plans are important ways to examine interconnected causes and effects of poverty and ways that we can stop people from falling into poverty in the first place.

The Premier’s commitment to a 5-year plan to end child poverty and a 10-year plan to end poverty in Alberta is very welcome and her comments reinforce the fact that she fully understands the issues – that poverty cannot be solved by employment alone, that prevention is important, and that children all deserve equal opportunity. Alberta experiences great wealth and prosperity, as such, if any place in Canada can eliminate poverty, it is this province.

The 3rd of 4 things we know about poverty is that:

3. Poverty is an individual experience and society’s problem.

Poverty is a drain on hope, dignity, and possibility and it is individuals living in poverty who experience this. It is the individuals living in poverty who experience feelings of stigma but the stigma should be society’s, not the individual’s. Our society must take ownership and responsibility for the fact that poverty exists – we created the conditions that allow it to exist and therefore society must take the steps to end it. When poverty persists, it is because we, as a society, haven’t taken the steps we need to in order to end it. We need to ask ourselves “what is it that our systems are not doing for people? “ By this I don’t mean what programs are not doing for people, or what services are not doing for people. I mean, what is it in our systems of economy, our government, our health care, our education that allows poverty to exist.

We must examine the way we view poverty; service is important and immediate responses are important but we need to think about the ways that our systems have not just contributed to the problem but how they have created the problem in the first place. How many programs are tackling the wrong problems? How much of our service delivery could we prevent from being needed in the first place? Morally and ethically, there is no room for debate on this, we need to start asking ourselves some tough questions about the work we do and whether we are contributing to positive social change or reinforcing systems that contribute to negative outcomes.

The last of 4 things we know about poverty is that:

4. Poverty comes with a price tag

Not asking tough questions is costing us economically and socially. Not taking action to solve poverty is costing us all in our communities and in real economic terms. 

We are all familiar with social costs of poverty, to the quality of life of individuals and communities and we now have quantifiable proof of the economic costs. A report published by Vibrant Communities Calgary and Action to End Poverty in Alberta, written jointly by myself and Celia Lee, shows that poverty costs Alberta’s health system, our criminal system, and our economy as much as 9.5 billion dollars per year. That is the price tag of our current approach, we think we can do better and achieve better outcomes for every Albertan.

Poverty is an urgent problem. Every child born into poverty in Calgary, every person who is unable to contribute to and participate in the city at their absolute fullest is costing every Albertan in real social terms as well as real economic terms.

So, in summary, it is my hope that as you leave here tonight, you feel armed with knowledge of four things, of these 4 things we know about poverty.

First, knowledge that: 

1. We can’t address poverty without addressing income.

Second, knowledge that: 

2. Poverty is a complex problem with interlocking causes and effects and solutions must also be interlocking, comprehensive, and preventive.

Third, knowledge that: 

3. Poverty is an individual experience and society’s problem.

And last, knowledge that: 

4. Poverty comes with a price tag.

By all means continue the discussion and the debate but not on these four points. On these 4 points the time for debate is over, the time for action has come.

This speech was written and presented by Alexa Briggs, Associate Director of Strategy and Research with Vibrant Communities Calgary. It was presented in response to a presentation given by Richard Wilkinson, May 1, 2012 at Hotel Arts, Calgary, AB.