Anti-poverty activists alarmed by COVID and soaring inflation

'Unless something happens to change this, we're heading into a devastating winter'

Bill Kaufmann 5 minute read October 17, 2021

Volunteers and families fill food hampers in Calgary on Wednesday, December 30, 2020. Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia / DARREN MAKOWICHUK/Postmedia

Crystal Fillier said the pressures of the pandemic and bruising inflation has her reaching back to the past to make ends meet.

“I took on babysitting jobs like I used to do in high school and I’ve put out resumes for a part-time job,” said Fillier.

The woman operates a day home out of her Whitehorn residence but the pandemic that’s forced so many people to work from home has undercut that.

Profoundly compounding that challenge are rapidly-rising costs that have left some bill payments to be deferred, said Fillier.

“We’ve always been able to balance our budget but things are stacking up and I have to pay bills in increments,” she said.

“Utilities are $100 or $150 more a month and that was in the warmer months — when it’s cold, it’ll be damn near impossible to keep up.”

Even so, Fillier said she’s lucky her landlord hasn’t raised her family’s rent and she hasn’t suffered the fate of a working friend who couldn’t pay her escalating bills.

“I have a friend who was so stressed out, she’s been living out of her car — her utilities were so high she solved that problem by living in her car,” she said.

Those who assist low-income Calgarians say increasing numbers of folks are struggling with a spiking cost of living impacting a range of necessities from gasoline to utilities and groceries.

“It’s crippling everybody, it’s beyond epidemic levels quite frankly,” said Sue Gwynn, an activist with the group Poverty Talks!

“If you’re having to shop for a family, you’re looking at $60 or $70 more on food. Where’s that going to come from?”

Social agencies in the city helping the poor, she said, are stretched to the point of near-helplessness.

“Unless something happens to change this, we’re heading into a devastating winter,” said Gwynn, who’s experienced poverty in recent years.

The monthly inflation rate in Canada began jumping early in the year before spiking by 4.1 per cent in August, the largest increase since March 2003.

Contributing to that were gasoline prices which have reached record highs in Calgary, while natural gas used primarily to heat homes hit a 12-year high.

By the end of August, world food prices shot up by 33 per cent year-over-year due partly to weather disruptions made worse by climate change and increased fuel costs.

Economists also attribute the ballooning costs to a sudden demand pent up by the pandemic and an abrupt rebound from lower prices during the COVID-19 slowdown.

That’s meant food prices are likely taking an extra five per cent bite out of consumers’ wallets, hurting those who can least afford it, said Meaghon Reid, executive director of advocacy group Vibrant Communities Calgary.

“Energy bills have gone up so much it’s made for an incredibly precarious situation — the choices for many are heat or eat,” said Reid.

“People were falling into poverty from the pandemic and now inflation. We’re pretty worried about it. It’s the perfect storm.”

The UCP government, she said, only made matters worse by de-indexing programs like Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped and Alberta Works after it assumed power in 2019.

It’s a penny-wise but pound-foolish approach, she said, because the resulting stress on emergency supports is far more expensive.

All of those factors have led to a profusion of aid groups in the city handling a growing clientele, she said.

“What we’ve seen was a number of food security organizations and agencies pop up all over town — there were already 100 of them and it’s gone up to 200,” said Reid.

Pre-pandemic, there were 189,000 Calgarians living in poverty but her group’s modelling suggests that number will soon swell by another 80,000 — a figure probably firmed up by galloping inflation.

Some economists suspect that inflation won’t be easing any time soon, locking in hardship for the low income.

The pandemic and a higher cost of living that are largely intertwined has forced many Calgarians who’ve never needed it to seek out assistance, said Reid.

“We’re hearing from a lot more people who are two mortgage payments away from losing their homes and people who’ve never used food banks before,” she said.

While they haven’t seen a huge influx of clients in recent weeks, demand for Calgary Food Bank hampers is up by 50 per cent this year, said spokeswoman Shawna Ogston.

“We know the combination of pandemic unemployment and inflation is having an impact because clients who used to come every 30 days now come every 10 days,” she said.

And rampant inflation can only add to that clientele while also cutting into the agency’s ability to help them, she said.

“We partly rely on donations for funding, so it increases our costs of buying — it’s going to affect agencies and clients,” said Ogston.

Fortunately, she said, Calgarians have proven generous donors, particularly when it comes to food items.

Anti-poverty advocates say the impending end of pandemic federal income supports poses another hurdle for those impacted economically by the virus and inflation.

On Friday, the Calgary Chamber of Commerce joined the call for the federal government to extend those programs.

“Families and businesses alike have faced major economic headwinds over the past 20 months and, given the ongoing severity of the pandemic and associated public health measures, they cannot absorb additional costs and uncertainty,” Chamber President Deborah Yedlin said in a statement.