New Report Shares Important Info: Fix the Budget; Avoid Dependencies

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.

John Kolkman, Edmonton Social Planning Council

John Kolkman, Edmonton Social Planning Council

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.

Source: Edmontonians’ Awareness and Attitudes on Poverty, Leger 2019

Source: Edmontonians’ Awareness and Attitudes on Poverty, Leger 2019

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.

Poverty costs Albertans an estimated $7.1 billion dollars annually. Image source: Edmontonians’ Awareness and Attitudes on Poverty, Leger 2019

EABAP Report Pg22 Chart.JPG

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.

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).

Who is Accountable for Bad Housing

Who is Accountable for Bad Housing

I recently listened to a podcast by Elizabeth Hames for CBC Radio. The podcast series is called ‘Slumtown’ and it consists of five episodes, the first title is ‘The Neighbours.’ I thought the episode would depict not only the not in my backyard’ (NIMBY) point of view but also the homeless, addicted and mental health folks who reside in those neighbourhoods. It did not.

A Profile of Poverty in Edmonton Release

A Profile of Poverty in Edmonton Release

The Edmonton region has 1 in 10 people experiencing poverty or 119,950 people. A family of four is considering in poverty when their income is about $39,000 a year or less. The data shows 53% of those experiencing poverty are women, 11% identify as Aboriginal and 42% identify as visible minorities. 9,705 lone parent families are living in low income, of these 8,460 families are female-led.

Does My Voice Really Matter?

Does My Voice Really Matter?

Sometimes people in marginalized or impoverished situations get invited to participate in surveys, group sessions and focus groups. What I wonder is, who are these data collection gatherings actually for? In theory, the basis is to help the marginalized and/or impoverished to receive better access to the necessary services. Of course, these services are in fact defined by social and government designs. What does this mean? Well for me - being considered "marginalized" or “living in poverty,” I get to participate in the process that will inevitably help me maneuver through the system. A system designed with bias. 

Homeless Memorial Reflection

Homeless Memorial Reflection

For the last 14 years, the Edmonton Coalition on Homelessness and Housing organizes a Homeless Memorial to honour those who have died due to the effects of homelessness in the last year. I was first asked four years ago to share my personal story of how housing changed my life after living homeless for many years. I spoke two years in a row and each time I emphasized what I would like to see change for my fellow neighbours experiencing homelessness.

Making it B.I.G.

Susannah Cameron is the Community Engagement Manager for EndPovertyEdmonton. On May 30 & 31 this year, she attended the Make It B.I.G. (Basic Income Guarantee) Public Forum in Calgary to hear experts, including those living in poverty, make the case for implementing a basic income in Alberta.

A support system can make a big impact

A support system can make a big impact

The majority of the North American population are not required to live in constant survival mode and likely do not understand what true survival actually is. The average person usually thinks of survival as the most obvious and basic items such as clothes on your back, stay close to food and water, have a place to get rest and find a way to get from A to B. There’s much more to survival.