Only 9% of all Canadians were considered poor in 2007. It was the lowest rate of low income in 30 years. But that was before the recession hit last fall. We don’t yet have income data for 2008, but, if past experience is anything to go by, poverty rates will go up again as declining economic growth shows up in the numbers. And that’s bad news for women whose high rates of poverty remain unaddressed.
Women on their own are the poorest of the poor, especially women raising children in lone-parent families, who are almost five times more likely to be poor than those in two-parent families. Yet their plight has been virtually ignored by the policy-makers. Older women on their own are also13 times more likely to be poor than seniors living in families, with more than 14% of them having had low incomes in 2007. That these two groups of women had such high rates of poverty, at a time when poverty rates for others had dropped to relatively low levels, must surely be a cause for serious concern.
Women are also among the poorest of the poor within Canada’s most vulnerable populations: Aboriginal people, people from racialized communities, recent immigrants (many of whom are also from racialized communities), and persons with disabilities. As one report puts it, “Gender creates a cleavage of vulnerability that cuts across all other groups.”
The roots of women’s poverty can be found in the way they are treated when they are in paid employment, and the situation in which they find themselves if they are not. Women who work full-time year-round earn only 71% of the average earnings of men working full-time. Wage gaps between women and men are even higher when hourly wage rates are compared. Most women don’t have pension plans at work, nor do most men, but women’s low wages make it almost impossible for them to save for retirement.
Public pension plans such as Old Age Security and the Canada Pension Plan provide only a basic income for seniors. Retirement pensions from the CPP, for example, are intended to replace earnings. But women’s low earnings during their working life are reflected in the retirement pensions they get from the CPP. In a year when the maximum CPP retirement pension is $908.75 a month, the average monthly retirement pension being paid to women who retired in May 2009 was only $391.29, compared with an average of $564.23 a month for retired men.
In many provinces, attempts to reduce poverty have focused on getting people off welfare and into jobs. But paid work for women coming off welfare may simply mean they are joining the ranks of the working poor. Women’s jobs are much more likely to be part-time, contract work, working through a temporary help agency, or working on their own. And lack of affordable child care also limits women’s choices of paid employment. Almost 40% of women’s jobs, compared with 30% of men’s jobs, are poorly paid, with little job security and no benefits such as pensions.
Women account for 60% of minimum-wage workers, but minimum wages in all provinces are less than $10 an hour, making it virtually impossible for these workers to earn a decent living. Women are unlikely to get EI benefits when they are out of work: only 39% of unemployed women compared with 45% of unemployed men are receiving benefits.
Single-parent mothers on welfare have seen their incomes fall sharply when inflation is taken into account. In Ontario, for example, the income of a lone parent with one child dropped by over $5,900 between 1994 and 2006.
A key objective of policies to deal with the recession must surely be to protect those who are most vulnerable. That’s why the issue of women’s equality must be put back on the policy agenda. We can’t use the current economic recession as an excuse to postpone taking action on the continuing poverty in which many women find themselves. In these uncertain times, our commitment to protect those who are most vulnerable matters more than ever.
Monica Townson is a Research Associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (http://policyalternatives.ca).