Poorest Albertans skimp on food to pay rising housing costs, study finds

Albertans with the least are spending more than they used to on housing, which means more of the poorest in this province are also cutting back on food purchases to make up the difference, according to a new report from the University of Calgary.

U of C report shows poorest Albertans spent a bigger percentage of income on shelter in 2016 versus 2010

Ron Kneebone is a professor at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy and co-author of a report comparing shelter, food and energy spending in Alberta in 2010 and 2016. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

A new report from the University of Calgary shows that the most impoverished Albertans are spending a bigger portion of their annual income on housing in 2016 than they were six years earlier.

The report, co-authored by Margarita Wilkins and Ron Kneebone, found that the poorest 20 per cent had to devote a larger portion of their budgets to shelter in 2016 than in 2010. 

The University of Calgary says increasing shelter costs may have "crowded out" food and energy spending in low income households. (University of Calgary School of Public Policy)

According to their analysis, which is partially based on Statistics Canada data, shelter expenses made up nearly 26 per cent of the poorest Albertan's average budget in 2010.

Six years later, while the lowest income group's average budget actually decreased, the percentage dedicated to housing went up to nearly 32 per cent.

The study also compared the costs of food and energy in those two years.

"We show that if you're a poor person, the amount of money you spend on the necessities of life…you're spending about 55 per cent of your income on those kind of necessities. If you're a middle income person you're spending about 30 per cent," said Kneebone, a professor at the university's School of Public Policy. 

​Food spending went down for poorest Albertans

​The analysis also blames rising housing costs for cutting the amount Albertans in poverty can spend on food and other bills.

"The increasing housing costs have caused people with limited incomes to spend less on food [and heat]," explained Kneebone. 

"I think it is a causal relation … you have to make some tough choices."

Not a surprise to service providers

Momentum, a Calgary non-profit that helps low-income families, says the report matches what they've been seeing in the community.

"People will go without in order to make rent and that includes cutting calories or going without what many of us would consider absolute essentials," said Carolyn Davis, director of community relations.

According to Davis, the report shows vulnerable groups need to be given more consideration in policy decisions.

"It's so hard for them to get to the table when they're already making these major tradeoffs in their life," said Davis.

Government policy too focused on middle and upper classes

Kneebone agrees that policy choices made by all levels of government aren't taking the lowest income groups into account.

"When they [governments] think about things like supply management, which affects the price of basics like milk and cheese… they should be thinking hard about the impact on poor people," said Kneebone.

The scientific director for social and economic policy at the School of Public Policy specifically called out the federal government's housing policy as ignoring low income Canadians.

"They tend to focus on middle to upper level incomes, and worrying about the ability for a person like me to buy a house in the suburbs," said Kneebone.