If you scan any headline these days, the story of rising global prices is not a surprise. Gas, food, housing —everything costs more, and inflation has become the word of the day. Beyond the news articles, the everyday impact of inflation is making it increasingly difficult for many Calgarians to bridge the widening gap between bills and income.

In June 2022, inflation rose to 8.1%, up from 7.7% in May. The 1980s were the last time Canada experienced something like this—January 1983 was the previous high. Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem recently shared that Canada’s inflation rate will remain “painfully high” for 2022. “Unfortunately, inflation is probably going to start with a ‘seven’ for the rest of the year,” he told CTV News in July.

More than 20% of Albertans are currently experiencing food insecurity.

A problem that impacts everyone

From April 2021 to April 2022, the price of food rose by 9.7%—staples like fresh fruit and meat increased by as much as 10%. Transportation, housing, and household expenses are among Canadians’ top concerns. Nearly three in four Canadians shared that the rise in prices has impacted their ability to meet day-to-day expenses and has forced major adjustments, especially for those living in a lower income bracket.

While statistics shows that overall income has risen since 2020, losses were concentrated among families and people who already had a lower market income, creating an unprecedented number of Canadians requiring income support; some from COVID-19 programs and some from existing supports.

Figures and percentages aside, what does inflation mean to the average person? The answer is: quite a bit. Inflation impacts everything from your ability to manage debt and provide for yourself and your family, and goes much deeper, into overall wellbeing and mental health.

It means many people are turning to food banks for the first time in their life, with more than 20% of Albertans experiencing food insecurity, the highest rate in the country. People are delaying big purchases—like a home—or struggling to afford rent. And it means the cycle of poverty will continue, and deepen, for more people in the community.

“We don’t just like to talk about how poverty looks from the numbers, but also ask what does it feel like? And I would say this year, the feeling of poverty is desperate.” - Meaghon Reid, Vibrant Communities Calgary

On-the-ground perspectives

Led by Salimah Kassam, Rise Calgary is a social profit organization focused on increasing social economic mobility in people.

“Our strategy is from scarcity to strength. Our first set of services is focused on stabilization, ensuring that people have food on the table and kids have what they need,” she says. “Through stabilization, we work with people in empowerment, longer term programming.”

Meaghon Reid is the executive director of Vibrant Communities Calgary (VCC), an advocacy organization focused on changing existing poverty systems.

“Poverty is always about income,” Reid says. “We don’t just like to talk about how poverty looks from the numbers, but also ask what does it feel like? And I would say this year, the feeling of poverty is desperate.”

VCC is seeing poverty across the city with lack of affordable housing, increased food insecurity, and new people entering poverty who might otherwise not have been at risk.

“Poverty exists in every ward in this city. And often, it’s behind the doors of a bungalow. It’s the parent who is just walking around all day, running numbers in their head. ‘If my electricity bill goes up by this much, then I’m going to have to cut back on the food bill. If I miss one day of work because I’m not in a salaried position, that’s going to put me in a really rough spot’,” Reid says.

For those on a fixed income un-indexed to inflation, the calculations get even tighter.

Kassam shares: “Ability is getting squished for people on a fixed income. When people call us, they’re at the end of the road and saying, ‘I can’t live off my $600 from income support anymore.’ A lot of people are saying, ‘OK, well, I guess I’ll be homeless next month because I can’t live on this’.”

Housing, or lack of it, is contributing to the overall unease for many people. The housing market in the past year led to people selling their homes above market value, simultaneously removing rental properties from the market.

“We’re seeing, for the first time ever, people who are making above the poverty line, or even middle-income people, not able to find places to rent and that is very remarkable,” says Reid.

“If we're always stressed about money...that stress has severe outcomes for people in terms of their mental health, their capacity to look to the future, their capacity to have strong relationships, and capacity to advocate for themselves.” - Salimah Kassam, Rise Calgary

The ripple effect

Non-profits are not immune to rising costs either—operating expenses are high, while demand is increasing. On top of several years of steady, high demand in Calgary and area, the post-pandemic workplace is filled with staff working overtime due to increased need and labour shortages.

“One of the big changes we’ve seen since COVID is an overall increase in demand from all our customers, and demand on basic needs items. There’s a 43% increase in the number of people calling and trying to get support,” says Kassam.

“A lot of agencies that provide charitable food are in trouble. Food bank visits went up 44% last year,” says Reid.

Kassam says poverty takes a toll on more than bank balances; it actually changes your brain chemistry to the point of losing 13 IQ points.

“If we’re always stressed about money, if we’re always stressed about making it through the day or week, there isn’t room for much else,” she says. “Constantly living under that stress has severe outcomes for people in terms of their mental health, their capacity to look to the future, their capacity to have strong relationships, and capacity to advocate for themselves.”

Children and teens living in poverty are two to three times more likely to develop mental health problems, and those in the lowest socio-economic groups are at an increased risk of mental health concerns—three to four times more likely to have poor to fair mental health compared to the general population.

Those living in poverty are more likely to be lonely, and unemployment is one of the strongest predictors of loneliness. Seniors are at a higher risk of social isolation. Linked to depression and deemed more harmful than lack of exercise, social isolation is incredibly damaging to both physical and mental health and wellbeing.

It’s clear that inflation is not purely an economic issue. It’s deeply embedded in our day-to-day existence, from our ability to house and feed ourselves, to our social connections and mental wellbeing.

“In our community, do people have the income and assets that they need to thrive? Do people have the tools to be resilient? Do people know where to get support if they need it?” asks Reid.

For the sake of the people of our community, we need to be able to answer an unequivocal “yes” to these questions.

As part of United Way Month in Calgary, we are taking a closer look at the effects of inflation on our communities and the agencies who serve them. In our upcoming features we will be sharing personal stories from those with lived experience in poverty, as well as spotlighting agencies who are looking at new and innovative ways to help those in need.