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Ripple of Change: Poverty reduction through community action

The making of Vibrant Communities Calgary and the Enough For All poverty reduction strategy. This post is part of our Our Ripples of Change series.

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Tue Jul 25, 2023 by Jeff Loomis

Momentum often tells stories of individual participants who, through programs, are building assets, achieving a sustainable livelihood, and creating the breathing room they need to be able to contribute to their community. A second, important component of our work is how we participate to make change happen at a systems level. These efforts don’t always have the impact we hope for, but when they do, they can positively change the lives of thousands of people. Our Ripples of Change series shines light on these longer-term, more complex stories of impact—Both Momentum’s, and that of our partners.

Poverty is often described as a wicked problem: a social challenge that is difficult to solve because it involves many interconnected factors. In the case of poverty these factors include health, employment, education, and housing. Despite this complexity, there are entry points into the problem that can make a difference. Sometimes, these ripple out to create greater community change. 

In the early 2000’s, poverty levels in Calgary and across Canada were rising. There were many community organizations providing services to alleviate the impacts, and many public policies in place across orders of government. But the problem persisted. Like tossing a handful of sand into the ocean, nothing really changed. It was becoming clear that a different approach was required—something more coordinated that could address the ‘root causes’ of poverty. Calgary needed an approach that could advance effective policy change and influence business practices to potentially ‘move the needle’ on poverty. 

Momentum and United Way of Calgary and Area came together and jointly founded Vibrant Communities Calgary (VCC), one of several Vibrant Communities sites across the country. VCC was launched in 2004 as a new organization that could focus on poverty reduction coordination, advocacy, community awareness and providing a voice to people with lived experience in poverty. The founding of VCC was the pebble, tossed into the water.

It was difficult in the beginning for VCC to establish its role and make meaningful impact in the community. Many people and organizations in Calgary struggled to engage with VCC as it was not involved in direct service delivery. What did they really do if they weren’t doing direct service delivery? It was also difficult to find and keep staff at VCC that were comfortable and competent working in a different way. Despite the initial challenges, VCC did contribute to early, important community-wide successes. For example, VCC worked closely with Fair Fares Calgary to advocate for the creation a low-income transit pass in Calgary, which has saved Calgarians at least $3M annually in reduced fares. VCC also helped put the living wage concept on the radar in Calgary.

Change continued to ripple, and a big boost came with Mayor Nenshi’s election in 2010. As part of his election campaign, Mayor Nenshi had pledged to launch Calgary’s first ever poverty reduction strategy. After considerable community input, the Enough for All poverty reduction strategy was unanimously approved and adopted by City Council and the United Way in 2013. The City and United Way also signed a partnership agreement with Vibrant Communities Calgary and Momentum for VCC to become the community steward of the Enough for All strategy moving forward.

The Enough for All strategy significantly raised the profile of poverty reduction efforts and created new opportunities to advance policy and practice change to reduce poverty. Two big examples are Fair Entry, a streamlined application process for all subsidized City services, and a sliding scale low-income transit pass, designed so that the less an applicant earns, the less they pay for transit. Calgary now has the most affordable public transit in Canada for very low-income earners.

Based on a VCC policy recommendation and advocacy efforts, the provincial government implemented an Alberta Child Benefit in 2015. The Alberta Child Benefit along with the federal child benefits resulted in a 30% reduction in Alberta’s child poverty rate between 2015 and 2020. Finally, big waves of change were coming to large numbers of people living on low incomes in Calgary.

VCC and its efforts to advance the Enough for All strategy faced headwinds from the economic downturn in 2015. Community needs were changing, so VCC lead a process to update the Enough for All strategy resulting in Enough for All 2.0. The refreshed Enough for All strategy has helped guide our community’s poverty reduction efforts since 2018, including during the turbulence of the COVID period.

Since the Enough for All strategy refresh, VCC’s community profile has increased. VCC has become the key media source on poverty in Calgary – media stories featuring VCC have increased from 7 in 2019 to 65 in 2022. A key contributor to the increased media coverage is the release of several high-quality research reports, such as the Calgary Poverty Profiles highlighting the experience of poverty in all 14 wards and the Community Wellbeing report measuring the state of community wellbeing in Calgary.

Working to educate and advocate continued as a key focus for VCC and our partners in 2022. VCC released 11 podcast episodes, 40 blogs and was called on by media 65 times. VCC continues to show up and mobilize in new ways that is making a real impact with community advocacy efforts. The growing profile of VCC contributed to the City of Calgary passing an ‘Enough for All’ focused budget in 2022 that maintained or enhanced investments in affordable housing, transit, mental health and addiction as well as Indigenous relations and a new Indigenous Gathering Place.

The increased profile of VCC has also helped advance important policy change efforts in support of the Enough for All 2.0 strategy. VCC, along with partners in the Calgary Social Policy Collaborative (Momentum is a founding member), successfully advocated to increase and index Income Support and Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) benefit levels. The indexing of key benefit programs helps ensure that some of the most vulnerable Albertans are better able to make ends meet, especially with the rising cost of living in our community. Opportunities to continue improving income support programs, such as reducing the penalty to work while receiving benefits, still exist; however, the indexing of benefits is a critical improvement to Alberta’s social safety net.

Since the launch of the Enough for All strategy, VCC, along with community partners like Momentum, has contributed to poverty levels now decreasing in Calgary. Based on the original measures in the first Enough for All strategy, poverty decreased in Calgary by 28% from 2015 to 2022. However, the encouraging results have a cautionary aspect since the biggest decline in poverty occurred between 2019 and 2020 largely due to federal pandemic benefits. Plus, the recent significant spike in cost of living, which impacts people living on lower incomes the most, will impact future poverty data.

Despite these cautionary notes, a key lesson since the launch of VCC by United Way and Momentum in 2004 is that a collective effort to reduce poverty is necessary and that it works. Poverty may be a complex, ‘wicked’ problem, but with all facets of our society – community, business, and government – working together, we can make a difference. Thoughtful, strategic efforts create lasting ripples of change. 

Read about another Ripple of Change Momentum helped get started: Microloans Create Big Impact: Immigrant Access Fund evolves to become Windmill Microlending.