Twenty bucks. That’s it. That’s all the money he has for groceries this week. As the cashier scans each package of instant noodles, he keeps a close eye on the screen, watching the total jump by a dollar each time. He’s pretending to be nonchalant, but deep down, inside the pocket of his faded jeans, his hand anxiously jingles the quarters, loonies, and toonies that he has scraped together for this trip to the grocery store. Over the past few years, he’s gotten good at math. Out of necessity. As he places each item in his basket, he adds it to the mental tally in his head. And don’t forget about the GST. The cashier scans the last item, a can of brown beans that he intentionally left to the end, and the total on the screen flips to $20.37. He must have miscalculated something. “Oh, actually, I forgot that I already have those at home,” he tells the cashier, pointing to the beans. She glances at him, mutters, “Sure,” and removes them from his order. “$19.02 please.”

The stigma around poverty

Poverty is a multifaceted concept, which holds social, economic, and political implications. At its most extreme, it refers to a complete lack of means necessary to meet basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. More broadly, it deprives people and communities of the resources, means, choices, and power to maintain basic living standards and participate in society.

For many people living in Calgary and the surrounding area, the struggle of making ends meet is a daily stress. But many hide their battle with this struggle, as the social stigma around poverty remains strong. People living in poverty are often portrayed as burdens to society, irresponsible, lazy, and unwilling to seek out opportunities. This stigma results in some people trying to mask poverty, doing whatever they can to make it appear that they are managing to stay afloat, when actually they are struggling to keep their head above water. Those living in poverty are often resilient and resourceful in the face of adversity, a far cry from the commentary normalized in our city, which has traditionally been steeped in a cultural narrative of entrepreneurship and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

We know that people all across our city wrestle with financial stresses—it isn’t just in specific neighbourhoods that we see people facing this reality. It could be our friends or neighbors who rely on feeding their families canned soup until pay day, or who feign not feeling well because they can’t afford to join their colleagues for a drink after work.

“I have friends who own cell phones, but can’t actually afford to have a data or calling plan. They rely on free wi-fi. Having a cell phone is such a social norm these days that, even though they can’t afford data or calling plans, people want to feel that they are a part of society—that they are like others.” -Michelle, social sector professional

Social exclusion, being blocked from various rights, opportunities, or resources that are normally available to others, is often one of the stresses of poverty. By masking poverty, people are able to avoid feeling socially excluded, and the humiliation that comes with being looked down upon, or pitied, by others. Masking poverty is a way to preserve one’s sense of dignity.

Building confidence to help people look and feel their best

Some local organizations help Calgarians struggling with poverty by addressing the visual signs of poverty. Making Changes Association is a local organization that offers clothing and employment programs to women and girls. One of their programs, the Walk-In Closet, helps women who want to join the workforce, return to school, or engage in volunteer opportunities to overcome financial barriers by offering them gently used clothing and accessories at no cost. This service helps build confidence and self-esteem, and sets participants up to escape the stereotypes associated with being unable to make ends meet while also helping empower them to create a better life for themselves.

One of the Program Managers, Patricia Boser, has seen first-hand how new wardrobe items can help boost the self-confidence of someone who is struggling. “It is amazing to witness the transformation not only in appearance but also in attitude. At the Walk-In Closet, while comfort and fit are important, teaching style and shifting negative body images often play a big role during the 90-minute appointment. You can see by their glowing smiles that they are excited at the new possibilities. They often remark that they now feel more confident to go to a job interview or do a school presentation.”

The Walk-In Closet program not only reduces barriers to clothing and opportunities such as employment or education, it also offers dignity of choice to those accessing these services. Staff are dedicated to helping empower all who pass through their doors.

The importance of unmasking poverty

Poverty impacts everyone differently, and while some might be more vulnerable to experiencing poverty, no one is immune. Unmasking poverty across our city, and humanizing the experiences of those who are resilient and resourceful in the face of adversity, prepares each of us to be more caring and compassionate to our friends and neighbors. By unmasking poverty, we can identify those who are struggling or vulnerable—and work together to build resilient and caring communities where everyone thrives. We are all better off when no one is left to struggle alone.