Is Poverty Increasing or Decreasing?

According to an Angus Reid survey, “Canadians generally think the number of people living in poverty in their communities is increasing.” More than 50% indicated they see poverty being on the rise, compared to 9% who think it is decreasing. That’s the perspective of ALL Canadians surveyed, not just those living below the Low Income Measure (LIM). I realize that this perspective is subjective, but so are the measures that professionals come up with (none of them are poor, I imagine) that identify who is poor and who isn’t.

Contrast this perspective, supposedly based on “lived” experience, with the following chart from the Edmonton Social Planning Council’s 2018 Tracking the Trends:

The chart indicates things are getting better, according to Stats Canada, which is represented in the chart used by the ESPC.

The Angus Reid Survey takes a different approach than associating data with a set Low Income Measure. It asked respondents to indicate the kinds of financial stresses they have experienced. Here are the results:

One might conclude that the percentages are somewhat low on a case by case basis, but keep in mind that the large majority of these items are about basics – paying the rent/mortgage, paying utilities, buying good food, and so on.

Angus Reid indicates that 16% of the population is “struggling” financially, which is defined as experiencing at least four of the above stresses in their life time and regularly experiencing one of them all of the time. This percentage most likely includes the 10.5% of the Edmonton CMA population experiencing poverty, but the emphasis is on “struggle” not on a poverty line.

The survey also identifies that 11% of Canadians are living “on the edge,” meaning they have experienced three of the stresses in their life time, though they experience them less frequently than those struggling. In part, this data coincides with annual surveys done by the Canadian Payroll Association that indicate up to half of Canadian workers are living pay cheque to pay cheque, though note that a good portion of these workers likely are present in the next paragraph.

A third category identified by Angus Reid are those who are “recently comfortable”  (36%), which means in their life time they have experienced at least one of the financial stresses, but in most cases not for some time. While these stresses may not be recurring, this group experiences “tight” money. Their financial comfort might be seen as somewhat tenuous and not as strong as the next and final category.

The final category are those who are “always comfortable”(37%). Basically, 92% of these folks have never experienced any of the 12 financial stresses in their lives. For the remaining 8%, their financial stresses tend to be about having expendable income for entertainment and non-essential purchases, but are able to consistently meet their basic needs.

With these four categories in mind, take a look at the following table:

at least according to those who measure poverty like Stats Can, though I bet you a dollar none of them live in poverty. In the Edmonton CMA, 10.5% of the population live below what is called the Low Income Measure. That’s more than 130,000 people; that’s twice the population of Red Deer. But is it accurate? Is the Low Income Measure (LIM) accurate? Could the measures we use to measure poverty be biased against people living in poverty? After all, isn’t it professionals who live above LIM who determine such measures? Aren’t they the ones who set the minimum wage and the living wage? Is it not them who come up with subsidies and programs designed to “help” the poor?

I am biased, too. I have had the sense for quite a few years that poverty is getting worse, that wealth building is  much more the aim of the economy than is designing an economic system that the majority of Canadians experience equitably. My bias includes a good dose of cynicism about the living wage movement because its system of measuring what a living wage is in a community is based on the persistent Have-Have Not mindset that guides the identification of such a wage.

In the context of a “living wage,” what does “living” mean? Apparently for some of us, living includes being able to plan for retirement, save for one’s children’s university tuition, manage debt, buy a home, have sufficient monies for emergencies and life-long learning.  But not so for those who might actually earn a living wage, though keep in mind that nearly 140,000 employed persons, according to the ESPC, earn less than the $16.31 living wage. That living wage is based on what it would take a family of four with two parents working to, I assume, have a life.

Again, these two parents won’t be able to save for university tuition, are discounted from ever owning a home or an adequate retirement fund. Their income will be bolstered by the Child Tax Benefit as well as other federal and provincial benefits for low income folks. Apparently those benefits are valued at $1.05 per hour because the living wage for these two parents was $17.36 a couple years ago, before the Child Tax Benefit came into effect.

Two things about that benefit. First, it will raise hundreds of thousands of Canadians out of economic poverty, a good thing. Second, the benefit drives the living wage down and serves as an indirect subsidy that allows employers to keep wages low, assuming employers want to even pay as much as $16.31 per hour. According to this chart, many employers don’t pay that much.



What if most our heroes were wrong?

I was young and living poor in Uptown Chicago. I was an on and off again college student. It took me seven years, maybe eight, to get my degree in Communications. I’d attend a term then hitch hike to California with my good friend, Karl. We both had hair to the middle of our backs and a fondness for faded blue jeans and mountain men shirts. Imagine seeing us on the highway with our thumbs out.

The next adventure was with David, a scrawny lad who to this day is still the best guitar player I have ever known. I apprenticed for a couple years as a furniture maker and went on to be a customer service manager for a mail order cosmetics and pharmaceutical company. What kind of career path was that?

By the time I got back to college, I was in a hurry and completed my final two years in about half the time. My college did not have a Communications major, so I petitioned the school to allow me to co-create one with a professor, a published poet who later went on to the CEO-ship of a cardboard company. The college surprised me. It said okay, go ahead – albeit in much more officious language.

There were some courses they offered that were applicable to my major, like journalism, communications theory, and fiction writing. Another regular course was Media Interviewing or somesuch. The instructor was a drama coach. It seemed like a fitting metaphor. She would assign us to go out somewhere and interview someone. Someone older than us, someone of a different race, someone of the opposite sex.

I probably shouldn’t admit this but I never did one interview. I just wrote stories about interviews that I made up. I made up the characters, the setting, and the back and forth. I got a B for the course. The instructor wrote on my last paper, “You could have gotten an A if you had been more original.” I was disappointed. I was vying for cum laude but I did raise a sardonic smile at karma’s unavoidable comeuppance.

I also did a few topics as independent study like two courses on Poetry Writing and one on Exposition and Criticism. It was fun and while I can’t remember much of the course work, I wrote some stories that raised one or two eyebrows. I even won an award for a collection of poetry that appeared in my college’s literary review. I wrote a lot of poems during those two Poetry Writing courses and I was confident would be published one day by the Atlantic Monthly or the Paris Review.

They weren’t.

It would be years before literary journals with names like Grain, Matrix, Edges, Syncline, and Sackbut. Eventually CBC aired a few of my short stories nationally and provincially – stories I have either lost or forgotton.

I wrote criticism for Cedar Rock. a tabloid literary review that featured new and alternative writers. I appeared in a couple editions as a poet, but I had the most fun writing a review of Charles Bukowski’s romance with the bottle and his pursuit of the gutter which fueled the undesirable brilliance he shone darkly on everything most of us cannot fathom or, if we can, refuse to recognize.

His brilliance spawned unnervbing titles of his books: Mocking Bird Wish Me Luck, Last Night of the Earth Poems, and Love is a Dog from Hell, my personal favorite. He wrote a poem in 1972 called, “I Can’t See Anything” that closes with one my favorite Bukowski lines: “most of our heroes have been wrong.”

I think it’s a warning fitting for any age. It’s appropriate at any point on our respective time-lines, though I think the warning’s profoundity increases with age. But it’s not really a statement we reflect on all that much as we move through our lives. Our heroes change. Sometimes heroes are more about fashion than substance. Adored for a  few tick-tocks of time, they fade away as new ones appear.

But I am not referring exclusively to the fashionable heroes. I include Picasso, Descartes, Neruda, Joni Mitchell, and Hank Chinaski among mine, along with others not on our shared list of heroes: my father,  a teacher named Lund,  a friend named John Cserny with whom I co-wrote a chapbook entitled, Poems for a Lucky Dog. The only red carpets they walked on were in hallways and discount motels.

John died too soon and undiscovered like so many other heroes. I was certain his fiction would rival the work of Raymond Carver, if not Hemingway’s. But it didn’t and had he lived a long life, who knows if his short stories would have adorned the walls in airport bookstores. Had he lived, I wonder if our friendship would have grown and prospered or dissipated as time changed everything between us.

What if Bukowski was right? What if most of our heroes were wrong? Which leads to other questions. Which ones? Why were they our heroes in the first place? How did all that wool end up covering our eyes?

What if the beautiful wisdom of my father turned out to be mostly folly? What if Neruda’s eloquence was fabricated by a translator wanna-be poet? What if my teachers were wrong, especially about me? That Bukowski line can mess with your head, but that’s his point, his intention, his rankling call to action.

It’s a statement with implications beyond its literal meaning. What if what we are doing to help people is harming them? What if charity is as much as about divisiveness as it is about empathy? What if the greatest barriers to resolving intractable problems are those who make their living as problem solvers?

This is not really a review about the poetry of Charles Bukowski, but I imagine you knew that a while ago. I don’t even read him anymore but remain grateful for, and impacted by, his heresies and castigations and how he pointed at alternative truths, so that we might join him for even the briefest of moments and  breathe in the scent of our collective bullshit.

Charles Bukowski

What if all our heroes were wrong?

What if we were wrong about them?

What if the notion of “hero” is a recipe for failure?

What if our words actually speak volumes about our inaction?

What if the truth to be embraced is residing in a rooming house, sitting in torn boxers on a dilapidated kitchen chair with rusted chrome legs, sucking on a salvaged cigar, typing madness on an old manual American Standard, while the tenant next door is making whale sounds on a tuba he bought a pawn shop?

What then?


Why are we here?

Such a simple question, four small words that get at the core of our community change work.

It’s not a question confined to a step in a visioning or planning process. It’s place is within us, no matter where we are going or if we are standing still.

It’s not just a question about purpose or vision. It is also inquiry into who we are and how coming together around something that matters to all of us might change us. After all, change of any size is made by people; the changes they make only occur because of the changes within themselves.Continue reading “Why are we here?”


Disruptive Innovation: a Type of Upside Down Thinking

Upside Down Thinking has a relationship with Disruptive Thinking and Disruptive Innovation, but they are not merely different descriptors of the same thing. You can read a previous posting I did a while back on Upside Down Thinking; this posting is about Disruptive Innovation.

Disruptive Innovation has its roots in the private sector. The concept was first articulated by Harvard professor, Clayton Christensen in 1995 who defined it as “an innovation [that] transforms an existing market or sector by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability where complication and high cost are the status quo. Initially, a disruptive innovation is formed in a niche market that may appear unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents, but eventually the new product or idea completely redefines the industry.” [1]

According to Christensen, there are two fundamental aspects of a disruptive innovation. It either provides a low cost alternative aimed at a segment of the market that the dominate players are not focusing on; or it actually creates a brand new market that is also typically a lower cost alternative in the market place

Consider the disruptive innovation that changed how we “rent” movies. Remember Blockbuster?Continue reading “Disruptive Innovation: a Type of Upside Down Thinking”

Where does who you are reside?

Who are you?

How could I ever know?

So the question turns to, “Who am I?”

Am I contained within my body?

Or does my identity exist across fields of experience or as an ever-changing pattern that defies being known?

Perhaps there is a moment in each of our lives when we recognize our consciousness and begin our lives the same way: realizing that “I am” and nothing more. Consciousness without content. Perhaps that is the only time human beings as a collective are “one.” We are all “turned on” in the exact same way.

Suddenly, I am.

There are no words. We just know it to be true. Our self-awareness is our first discovery, our first knowledge that centers itself in the vastness of all that is to come.

That first discovery is not one of race, gender, or miracles. It just is. Suddenly, I am, but without the understanding of my shape and colour, without having a language because I have yet to recognize a thought, much less form an idea.

Throughout my life I have had this sense of presence within. I am the presence that has, itself, never wavered, never changed. It’s like a constant beam inside that shines into the darkness of tomorrow. It was there when you were eight years old and on your fortieth birthday, there it was, that unchanging presence that accompanies you constantly, has no ability to judge you or influence your expression of self.

Who I am is not about my identity.

Who I am is, Suddenly, I am.”

Something sparked inside us and we experienced, Suddenly, I am.

That’s our one truth. It is an experience we share and create over and over and over again.

All that happens next informs our identity. We learn how to process information and problem solve. We form values based on the experience of the values of those we trust or could not avoid.

Suddenly I am!  Suddenly you are, too! And him and her!

I may reside inside myself but we reside in one another.

And that’s fodder for another blog post, another time.

Reflecting on a Creative Life

Visit my music page.

My musical life seems so long ago now. I guess because it is. In the early 1990s I won a song writing contest which allowed me to play a featured stage and two workshops at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. That honor led to other performances on CBC radio, on a telethon, and a music video through Project Discovery, which I don’t think exists anymore. I have that vid somewhere, but it is likely buried in a box in the basement.

My band, Early Warning, was featured in See Magazine (or whatever it was called back then). We made the front cover – a picture of us along the railroad tracks off Whyte Avenue. I had hair down to the middle of my back and was sporting gigantic wire rim glasses. I had the mien of a middle aged hippy yearning to look like some sort of geek.Continue reading “Reflecting on a Creative Life”

Collaborating to Understand Collaboration; A New Tool

I imagine the majority of us value collaboration. We believe that doing it increases impact, fosters innovation, and is especially called for when it comes to effecting large-scale systemic change (or transformational change). Many say collaboration is more efficient than disconnected social change or social service efforts. The expectations of many funders are that grant requests must include collaboration. It’s a norm we just accept.

Collective Impact is how we describe large-scale collaboration that aspires to resolve intractable problems like poverty, climate change, family violence, obesity and so on. It makes sense to view working together on such problems as requiring such a collaborative framework.

agree-disagree tool image

As much as we see collaboration as a desired, if not necessary community-change norm, people experience collaboration differently, have varied perspectives on what it is, what its benefits are, how successful it actually is, and how it can go wrong. While we share a common appreciation for collaboration, we have feelings and we make judgements about collaboration that may not shared with one another. In other words, each of us carries biases about collaboration to the collaborative table that are often kept hidden from one another for a variety of reasons.

I see these unshared perspectives as important undercurrents that should be brought to the surface and discussed. Over the years, I have been a member of more collaborations than I can count. I cannot recall having an in depth conversation with my colleagues about our respective views and experiences on collaboration. What we did do more times than not was identify guiding principles that we inserted into our terms of reference, but I typically found this effort to be more task-focused than being grounded in generative conversations about collaboration.

Collaboration is a personal endeavour as much as it is a professional one, and I am offering the attached tool as one way for a group to get at what individuals think and believe about collaboration and help them dialogue about their differences and then work to identify a shared understanding of what collaboration might offer them if they commit to working that way. I suggest such conversation is a necessary precursor to identifying guiding principles as well as the process design of collaborating together.

The tool is based on an Agree-Disagree Exercise. Moving through the steps outlined in its instructions can enhance the possibility of identifying a group’s own case for collaborating to resolve a significant community problem.  As is the case for all tools and exercises, this tool requires authentic participation by members of a collaborative group to have optimal value. It also requires sufficient time to undertake this engagement.

Take a look at this tool. Adapt it to accommodate your own context and group dynamics if that will help you. Once you have identified your own “case” for collaborating you can move on to the next challenge, which is how to make your case come alive in your work. That stage of your work may require another tool; I am going to think about that.

Agree-Disagree Exercises can be applied to more than collaboration. As you will see, it offers a framework that can be used to discuss Collective Impact, Community Engagement, Innovation, and on.


Let me know what you think. I am also on the prowl to improve!

About Collective Impact: Types of Problems, Degrees of Change, Learning Loops, and Methods of Thinking

Collective Impact is multi-sector approach to large-scale collaboration that is authentically inclusive of citizens in its development and implementation – in particular citizens who have life-experience with the big problems or issues being addressed, such as poverty, climate change, family violence, and so many more.

Collective Impact is not an approach aimed at creating program changes among a few agencies or undertaking collaboration in order to compete with other community initiatives. Rather, it tends to be focused on efforts to leverage talents, existing services, innovations, and resources in order to effect significant changes to policies and systems and where needed, significant programmatic changes. Such changes might occur within governments or government-run institutions, within education and health institutions, within business, or within service providers.

At recent sessions and workshops I held in Vancouver (Community Change Institute) and in Edmonton (Upside Down Thinking) , I shared a perspective on three types of problems identified by Brenda Zimmerman and how they connect to three types of change, three types of learning, and various types of thinking required in addressing each type of problem. My intent is to help our collective thinking about significant problems/issues facing our communities.

Simple problems are those we can fix easily and are sometimes called kaizen (the Japanese word for “continuous improvement”). Solutions to these kinds of problems are akin to tweaking a recipe or adjusting a process to improve quality or reliability of performance. Typically such changes are incremental.Continue reading “About Collective Impact: Types of Problems, Degrees of Change, Learning Loops, and Methods of Thinking”

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