Poverty Snapshot 2020

Laying Bare Inequities: COVID-19, Gender, Race and Precarious Employment

15 December 2020

A Changing Context

2020 has been a tough year. While the data is not all in, this year has brought inequities to the surface, in our own city and worldwide.

Among those harder hit include Calgarians who were experiencing poverty before COVID-19 began. Parents, especially mothers, are struggling to balance work and childcare, and many are leaving employment altogether. Racialized groups and people with lower incomes are less likely to be able to work from home and much more likely to contract COVID-19. Unpaid sick leave was always an issue of poverty, but today it is a matter of public health.

The intersection of COVID-19, the recession, and increasing food prices has made the vulnerable more vulnerable. We don’t have all the information yet, but need to be prepared to support Calgarians facing unprecedented challenges. As such, we’ll share the most recent data we have on poverty in Calgary and what we know about this radical new context.

A city without poverty benefits us all - it eases strain on the healthcare system and boosts economic recovery. It makes every neighbourhood healthier and more connected. We know what brings people out of poverty, but our current social assistance programs knowingly keep people well below the poverty line. We need to change direction. So let’s take a look at where we’re at and talk about paths towards Enough for All.

What We Know So Far

COVID-19, Gender, Race, and Precarious Employment

The year 2020 will likely be remembered for the year a pandemic, economic lockdown and global attention to systemic racism - evidenced by the Black Lives Matter movement - converged.

2020 is hitting some Calgarians harder

Women, visible minorities, new Canadians, people with disabilities, and Indigenous people living in urban settings are statistically more likely to experience poverty. What happens when we layer additional challenges like a global pandemic and economic recession?

Data is limited, but what exists confirms what we might predict: those who were already vulnerable are hit harder.

Not only are they more likely to contract COVID-19, they are also more likely to lose their jobs and incomes. These groups are overrepresented among essential workers and among jobs that can’t be done from home during a lockdown. Women are more likely than men to forego or lose economic opportunities to care for children.

Meatpacking plants and care facilities – which experienced a substantial share of Alberta’s outbreaks - disproportionately represent low wages, women, people of colour and new Canadians. As of December 2020, average salaries in care facilities are just over $18/hour and $15-$18 in meatpacking facilities in Alberta. In Canada, 41% of meat processing workers are “members of racialized groups”, compared with 21% of the general workforce. The vast majority of staff in home care, nursing homes, and residential care facilities are women and new immigrants - 70% in Calgary. In Canada, 31% are immigrant women; 12% are Black and 11% are Filipino, despite making up 3% of the population.


of meat processing workers are members of racialized groups

Over 70%

of workers in home care and nursing and residential care facilities in Calgary are new immigrants, and most are women

COVID-19 has been contracted at higher rates in disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Canada, where essential workers such as care attendants, clerks and taxi drivers are highly represented. Contraction rates are also thought to be related to densely populated buildings and limited access to outdoor space. By May 2020, preliminary research showed more cases of COVID-19 among low-income Canadians.

Persons with disabilities are anticipated to be negatively affected by COVID-19 because of restrictions on care and social isolation.

Data is limited on the impacts of COVID-19 on employment and income. We know that women have lost work and hours at a higher rate than men, and trail in job recovery. In a Statistics Canada survey, visible minorities were more likely to report negative financial impacts, job losses and reduced hours as a result of COVID-19 than White respondents.

For some, precarious employment can mean experiencing poverty while employed. Statistics Canada has identified the growing gig economy as poorly understood, and a likely area of concern, before and during the pandemic. Gig workers are self-employed freelancers, on-demand online workers and day labourers. They represented 8-10% of all Canadian workers, and 7% of prairie province workers, in 2016. In Canada, women in health care represent the largest share of gig work, suggesting a compounding effect with low wages and higher risk. Resiliency in the pandemic is expected to be linked to the nature of gig work, and how much total income relies on it. There is more to learn about its implications for income, health benefits, parental leave, sick leave and employment insurance.

A web illustrating the aspects of a cost of living

The effects of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB)

Noteworthy with the CERB provided during the pandemic’s economic lockdown was the speed with which it was dispensed, lack of red tape and amount provided. Typically, benefits involve many steps for people who may have little bandwidth for them. Delay in dispensing them can allow emergency situations to deteriorate, making recovery more difficult and expensive. What happens when we employ a trust-based system, where qualifications are validated later? Data on the effects of CERB is limited, but what we do have suggests fewer income support caseloads and lower stress among low-income Calgarians who qualified for the benefit.

Do we expect Canadians to work less due to CERB? Basic incomes are not correlated with working less, except among new mothers and students - while showing positive effects on long-term earnings, health, and intergenerational well-being. CERB is a type of basic income, but a ‘blunter instrument’ with a hard $1,000 earning limit that some experts predict could create a disincentive for working more. However, larger economic forces are at play. Data comparing four economic recoveries over the past 40 years suggests we may see lengthier unemployment after 2020 due to the complex effects of the lockdown on the economy. The CERB is intended to curb these effects by allowing Canadians to keep spending in their local economies.

According to the Calgary Counselling Centre, Calgarians earning less than $20,000/year averaged a 5-point decrease in stress - out of 180 points - during the first two months CERB was available.

Policy Directions - Towards Enough for All

  • Maintain the commitment to index AISH and Income Supports, change earning exemption rates and asset limits, and ensure supports keep pace with inflation and with the cost of living.
    Learn more

  • Institute paid sick leave, and include self-employed and gig workers.

  • Recommend Statistics Canada collect more data on the gig economy so that we can identify and support changing needs and develop a definition of “precarious work”.

  • Adjust other special benefits for gig workers and self-employed people to ensure they have access to the same safety nets as employees, including parental leave.

  • Deliver income supports rapidly to meet immediate needs, using a system based on trust with checks-and-balances coming later, to keep people from falling below the poverty line even temporarily.

  • Increase the Alberta Child and Family Benefit to previous levels to support healthy child development and ensure no child lives below the poverty line.

  • Create a minimum wage policy that ensures the minimum wage is a living wage.

  • Bring an equity framework to city planning and neighbourhood investment, in consultation with The City of Calgary Social Well-Being Advisory Committee, to provide travel options and safe, accessible infrastructure to underserved communities.
    Learn more

  • Explore a Basic Income Guarantee for Canada to ensure no one falls through the cracks and everyone can meet their basic needs regardless of work status.

Want to learn more?

Download the full report to learn more about the data, dive deeper into topics, our references, and more.