Empower U continues to lift women out of poverty during COVID-19 pandemic - United Way Alberta Capital Region

Empower U continues to lift women out of poverty during COVID-19 pandemic

December 2, 2020

A woman delivers an Empower U financial literacy workshop to three other seated women.
Learning to save money through a United Way funded. program taught Nicole her worth. Photo taken before COVID-19 pandemic.

When the COVID-19 pandemic meant agencies had to close doors and social distance, United Way of the Alberta Capital Region’s Empower U initiative went online to ensure this important financial literacy work didn’t stop empowering vulnerable women from taking control of their finances.

Poverty is a complex issue with many contributing factors. Barriers to financial support and a lack of financial education make it even more difficult to find a steady footing to build a pathway out of poverty.

Women and their families are more vulnerable to poverty, with 53% of people in Edmonton experiencing poverty identifying as women. Women also live longer and have lower average earnings than men.

The aptly-named Empower U is a financial literacy program focused on empowering women to gain control and self-confidence over their finances. Participants increase their knowledge, tools, and access to resources to meet their financial goals. It combines financial education, one-on-one financial coaching, and matched savings.

The pandemic has far-reaching socio-economical effects. With women disproportionately impacted by layoffs and lack of childcare, the recession has been dubbed a ‘she-cession’. The women who access Empower U programming were no exception. Participants have been impacted through job loss, lack of childcare, and inability to support children through online learning. They’ve also lost out on their own opportunity to pursue post-secondary education.

Mother and daughter putting coins into piggy bank - Stock image

Photo illustration from iStock

Continuing to empower women during she-cession
The Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation hosts Empower U sessions to support women who have experienced sexual exploitation and trafficking heal and renew their lives. CEASE participants often face overwhelming poverty, and the majority of participants say financial factors contributed to their decisions to stay in the sex trade, explains Gaye Catherall, Financial Literacy Coordinator at CEASE.

CEASE has been able to offer Empower U courses in two ways: both online over Zoom, and in-person in a large space, with strict health and safety standards.

“Some participants who have barriers such as babysitting, transportation, or are uncomfortable in group settings have been able to access our virtual classes. Participants who do not have the technology to join us virtually were able to join the in-person class that we held. So, we were able to address everyone’s individual needs,” said Gaye.

However, because of the pandemic and the barriers that are in place to protect people, socializing and community building is a lot more difficult.

“It’s so much better in person. Pre-COVID-19, I cooked a meal, and we all got together and socialized, and that’s missing. Right now we’ve got 14 people, and there is no opportunity to get to know each other. My preference is in-person programming because it’s such an important social outlet. They become friends and they develop this support system. That’s not there.”

Another aspect of Empower U that CEASE offers is one-on-one, pro-bono financial coaching. The participants sit down with a financial coach to ask questions and review their credit report. Together, they create a plan to work towards reducing debt and dealing with collections agencies.

“The participants have achieved a degree of financial literacy most Canadians don’t have. They’ve done budgets, know what a credit score is, understand where their money is going, know tax programs, home-buying issues. It makes it easier to do a financial plan,” explains financial planner Jason Watt, who helped CEASE launch the financial coaching component of the program.

The one-on-one meetings have also been impacted by the pandemic and social distancing, but Jason feels it’s much easier to connect with participants. Many of them have WiFi access or a cell phone to be able to contact him during the coaching session.

Women Working with Documents While Working at Laptop at Home by Iakov Filimonov from Canva

Photo Illustration by Iakov Filimonov from Canva

Human trafficking can have long-lasting financial impacts
Often, CEASE Empower U participants have a long road ahead when it comes to get their finances back on track. Traffickers will often put expenses related to trafficking in the name of the survivor, making it harder to follow the paper trail and investigate trafficking. This coerced debt means even after a survivor has left the situation, they have to work to clear the debt in their name. The process is not only time consuming, but it can also be retraumatizing.

“Some of the work is about actually fixing the problem, but some of it is just having the support there for participants. There’s not a 1-800 number for people who have been human trafficked. You have to call, follow up, and write letters,” said Jason.

“In this work, I see a huge amount of resiliency and resourcefulness. Once people get a little bit of advantage, once they get a couple of foundational things sorted out, they can make a ton of progress.”

Gaye has seen the impact that Empower U has on program participants, not just on their financial wellbeing but in other aspects of their life. The courses give participants a huge boost of self-esteem. They take what they have learned about financial empowerment and apply those concepts of planning and goal setting to other aspects of their life.

“We’ve given them an opportunity to move forward. The coaches are kind, patient and compassionate. These financial planners are giving back to community and giving opportunity the participants otherwise wouldn’t have. I can’t tell you enough how much it adds to that program. It’s that hope too … and the confidence that comes along with all of that.”