New study finds COVID-19 pandemic hits low income population the hardest

Mental health difficulties, especially loneliness and stress, were other reported effects of the pandemic on low income people in Calgary. Almost 90 per cent of people interviewed said their stress had increased due to the pandemic, with just over 80 per cent reporting a worse quality of life. Despite the creation of government support programs, only 30 per cent of those interviewed were able to access CERB due to barriers in the system.

A new study has been released stating that the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted the lives of low-income Calgarians. Participants reported struggling with job loss, inability to pay their bills, and food insecurity. Mental and physical health struggles were also frequently mentioned by those interviewed.

The study was held in partnership between Vibrant Communities Calgary and University of Calgary through the city’s initiative “Enough for All.” Nearly 200 people were interviewed, with the majority of households earning less than $35,000 a year.

FINDINGS

Over 70 per cent of people interviewed reported struggling to pay for food and household bills such as electricity since the COVID-19 pandemic began. This, in part, is due to the community support systems, such as food hampers and donations that were shut down or heavily restricted over health concerns. 56 per cent of people also said they now struggled to access health care.

“Some of the stories [heard in the study] included: people who were down to one meal a day so they could save money to pay rent, people who were skipping days of medications, people who were living in dental pain because all of these things cost money,” said Meaghon Reid, executive director of Vibrant Communities Calgary. “We saw that the highest proportion of respondents were between two weeks and 10 months behind on their payments. So all those trade-offs for basic necessities are a daily reality for Calgarians,” she added.                                                                                                            

Mental health difficulties, especially loneliness and stress, were other reported effects of the pandemic on low income people in Calgary. Almost 90 per cent of people interviewed said their stress had increased due to the pandemic, with just over 80 per cent reporting a worse quality of life.

Almost half of participants also reported increased instances of racism in the last 16 months. This discrimination led to a further sense of isolation and mental health distress, since racialized respondents reported not feeling safe in public when trying to access employment, food, or health care.

“All the factors [mentioned by participants] are compounded by 100 if you are a racialized member of our community,” said Reid.

BARRIERS TO CERB

Despite the creation of government support programs, only 30 per cent of those interviewed were able to access CERB due to barriers in the system.

“For CERB, you absolutely needed to have internet, and a device that could access the internet. You needed to have a pretty good grip on the English language …. You needed to have a fixed address, you needed to have a bank account. All of these things are not givens for people in vulnerable situations,” Reid said.

Misinformation also led many respondents to be fearful of accepting the money or wrongly believing they were not entitled to the financial support.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CHANGE

Organizers of the study proposed eight recommendations to improve the lives of low-income Calgarians. A universal basic income was suggested, with better access than what was offered through CERB.

Organizers also proposed targeted, multilingual campaigns to ensure information about financial and emotional support services is available to all demographics.

About 80,000 people in Calgary are at risk of falling into poverty, Reid said. She emphasized that poverty can often go unseen, with many unaware of how many people in this city are having financial difficulties.

Vibrant Communities Calgary hopes this study illuminates this silent struggle. These “stories are the stories of our neighbours and of all Calgarians. We know that person even if it doesn’t look obvious. That could be behind the walls of a bungalow on our street,” said Reid.