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Food banks, bills and constant stress: What living in poverty really means in Canada

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At least 4.8 million Canadians live below the poverty line, according Statistics Canada.

The agency defines that as households with earnings less than half of the national median income — $22,133 for a single person, or $38,335 for a family of three.

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A survey by the Angus Reid Institute released Tuesday took a deeper look at exactly what living in poverty means in Canada, and the challenges faced by those who struggle to make ends meet.

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According to the survey, 27 per cent of Canadians say they have experienced or are currently experiencing financial difficulties. Another 31 per cent feel “very stressed about money” either often or all the time.

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Researchers at the institute note that those living in “extreme poverty” may not have access to the Internet, and therefore may not be fully represented in this study, which was conducted online.

Four groups of Canadians

The survey presented respondents with 12 scenarios, asking if they have ever had to skip out on one due to financial constraints.

The scenarios included:

  • Skipping going out for dinner for a special occasion
  • Skipping out going to the movie theatre or a similar outing
  • Buying low-quality groceries because they’re cheaper
  • Not getting dental care
  • Not being able to afford new clothes when needed
  • Living in a space that doesn’t meet needs (ex. too small)
  • Having to borrow money for essential needs
  • Delaying utility bill payments
  • Delaying mortgage or rent payments
  • Not being able to buy enough winter clothing
  • Using a food bank
  • Using a payday loan service

Based on their responses, Canadians were divided into four categories.

The struggling, at 16 per cent of the population, had struggled with at least four of these scenarios, the survey found. Many had experienced one on an ongoing basis.

On the edge, 11 per cent, had experienced three of the 12 situations, but unlike the first batch of Canadians, they encountered the difficulties less often.

READ MORE: 1.2 million Canadian children living in poverty

The “recently comfortable” Canadians, at 36 per cent, experienced at least one scenario at some point. They know what financial difficulties feel like, but are not necessarily currently struggling with them.

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The final batch of Canadians were labelled “always comfortable” by researchers and make up 36 per cent of the population.

“These Canadians are overwhelmingly untouched by the 12 scenarios canvassed in this survey,” the report explained.

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Elaine Power, an associate professor at Queen’s University who studies food insecurities, explained to Global News that those struggling often don’t have money to spend after rent.

“Rent is the first priority, because things get a lot more complicated without a roof over your head,” she said. ” Then people prioritize what else needs to get paid — it might be loans, or the phone bill. There is constant juggling of the priorities.”

Money for food, Power explained, is often just what is left over — not enough for full, balanced meals.

Who are “the struggling?”

Marginalized or minority communities are more likely to be struggling, including groups such as Indigenous people, visible minorities, those with disabilities, LGBTQ+ individuals and women.

Those with only a high school education were also more likely to be in this category, the survey found. They also tend to be younger; about 85 per cent are below 55 years old.

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The average household income for the category was $41,000 — that’s compared to an average of $81,000 for those in the “always comfortable” group.

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The survey points out that those who are struggling could be earning more, but are struggling with other factors such as debt, living in expensive areas or have children.

Coping with financial difficulties

Power explained that the most difficult aspect of poverty is the effect it can have on mental health.

“The overriding concern for people is just the constant stress and anxiety about how they’re going to pay their bills and how they’re going to put food on the table,” she explained.

People who are are in the “struggling” category are also more likely to feel their financial situation hasn’t gotten better in the past few years, the survey reported. They were also the least likely of the groups, at 52 per cent, to be optimistic things will get better.

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Sixty-seven per cent in the category also said they were “worse off” than their parents were at the same stage in life.

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“Once you’re stuck below the poverty line, especially if you’re on social assistance, it’s like being stuck below a deep, dark hole,” Power explained.

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“It’s often hard to find a way out, especially if you are paying interest on loans. You just can’t keep up, so people can sink quite low.”

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This Angus Reid Institute survey was conducted online between May 28 and June 13 by 2,542 Canadian adults who are members of Maru Voice Canada. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error plus or minus two percentage points 19 times out of 20.