In response to the recent release of Edmontonians’ Awareness and Attitudes of Poverty Follow-up Report 2019, this blog post is contributed by John Kolkman, Research Associate, Edmonton Social Planning Council. John has several decades of experience working as a public policy researcher both in non-profit and politics. His work at the Edmonton Social Planning Council involves issues related to poverty, wealth and income inequality, removing employment barriers, social determinants of health, affordable housing, and neighbourhood revitalization.
I’ve always found public opinion surveys both fascinating and informative. For those of us working in the public policy trenches, randomized surveys are a good reality check. Is what we are communicating actually resonating with the average person or we stuck in our own echo chamber?
The 2019 Leger survey of 402 Edmontonians randomly selected to fit Edmonton’s demographic profile is relatively small and subject to sampling errors like any public opinion poll. It’s nevertheless encouraging that there were statistically significant improvements in public attitudes toward Edmontonians living in poverty across a range of measures from an identical survey conducted four years earlier.
Compared to the previous survey, a larger proportion of Edmontonians believe poverty is a significant problem in our city, recognize that most live in poverty due to conditions beyond their control, and that discrimination plays a role. This is an affirmation of the hard work many community organizations are doing to raise awareness in the larger community about the causes and solutions to poverty.
It’s no surprise that poverty is not a top of mind issue for many Edmontonians with busy lives. Nor do most have in-depth knowledge of the subject. That’s why public opinion surveys can yield inconsistent or even seemingly contradictory results depending on how questions are asked.
So while 89% of survey respondents believe ending poverty is the right thing to do and makes financial sense (pg 26), when asked how much Alberta could save by ending poverty respondents seriously underestimated the dollar amount. Sixty-five percent of respondents think that eliminating poverty will save Alberta $100 million or less per year compared to 18% who think it will save more. Of that 18%, fewer than one in ten respondents think the cost saving would be more than $1 billion. The most comprehensive study done to date by Vibrant Communities Calgary quantified the savings to Albertans to be at least $7.1 billion. The savings from increased social investment are composed of lower long-term costs for health care, criminal justice, housing, and child welfare as the result of having a healthier, better educated population. The reason this vast underestimation of the cost savings matters is that it feeds into the narrative that social programs represent increased spending and not investments that more than pay for themselves over the long haul through savings.
In the 2019 Leger survey, 87% of Edmontonians agree with the statement that ‘poverty can be eliminated or drastically reduced.’ This is unchanged from the 2015 survey. Yet 61% of survey respondents also agree with the statement that ‘poverty is inevitable in our current society’ a slight increase from the 58% who agree with the same statement in 2015 (pg 22). So while a significant majority of Edmontonians think there are real solutions to poverty, there also remains an undercurrent of fatalism that there will always be poor people among us.
While many survey respondents think that poverty elimination is important, when asked to rank it with other municipal issues, the results are decidedly more mixed. While by a margin of 76% to 15% respondents agree that ‘poverty is a core issue in the City and should be prioritized, by a margin of 48% to 36% they also agree that ‘that there are bigger problems for the City which need more attention/focus’ (pg 33).
While not a majority, 42% of survey respondents agree with the statement that ‘too many benefits provided to the poor will encourage them to depend more on social support’ while 73% also agree with the statement that ‘government policies and programs are the best approach to eliminating poverty.’ Reading between the lines a bit, Edmontonians are supportive of policies that help eliminate poverty but are also concerned that any such programs provide a ladder out of poverty rather than creating dependency.
What do the results of the 2019 Leger survey mean for community organizations on the front line of ending poverty and homelessness in Edmonton? Despite the gains that have been made in changing peoples’ minds about poverty since 2015, the survey results show public opinion remains quite malleable and could change depending on how issues are framed. The election of a UCP government focused only on cutting spending and not increasing revenue to balance the budget will no doubt have an impact. Spending on social programs to reduce poverty are not likely to be exempt from the coming cuts.
There are many things to be learned from public attitudes to poverty in Edmonton. In this blog post I’ll focus on just two learnings:
The first is that we need to do a better job communicating and quantifying the long-term cost savings of increased investments in fighting poverty and homelessness to the health care, education, criminal justice and child welfare systems.
The second is that poverty solutions need to lift people out of poverty to conversely counter the idea that additional social supports create dependency.
A full copy of the report: Edmontonians’ Awareness and Attitudes on Poverty, Leger 2019 is available, as is the original benchmark survey (2015).