Canadian women among poorest of the poor

April 1, 2000

We used to hear a lot about the feminization of poverty. It hasn't been in the news much lately. Yet women remain among the poorest of the poor in Canada, and the percentage of women living in poverty is growing. Almost 19% of adult women are now poor - the highest rate of women's poverty in two decades.

In fact, there has been virtually no improvement in women's poverty since the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada issued its report some 30 years ago. The Commission found that almost 52% of families with children headed by sole-support mothers were poor. Today, that percentage, which rose as high as 62% in 1984, now stands at 56%. The rate has been consistently above 50% since the early 1980s.

The situation of older women has not improved either. About half of all women aged 65 or older who were on their own were living in poverty when the Royal Commission issued its report. Thirty years later, the percentage remains the same: 49% of unattached women aged 65 or older have low incomes. Poverty rates among older unattached women were as high as 72% in 1980, but they have declined steadily since then, thanks to improvements in government programs such as Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, as well as the maturing of the Canada/Quebec Pension Plan.

Most poor people live thousands of dollars below the poverty line. For example, while 56% of women heading lone-parent families are poor, their depth of poverty - what Statistics Canada calls their "average income deficiency" - is just over $9,000. That is three times greater than the poverty gap for older women on their own, who averaged about $3,000 below the poverty line.

Over the past 20 years, the depth of poverty has worsened for those for whom the poverty gap was already the worst. The National Council of Welfare says it was shocked to discover that the number of families and individuals living at less than half the poverty line has actually increased. Clearly there has been a sharp increase in the ranks of the poorest of the poor since 1989, says the Council, as governments at all levels cut back services and income supports.

Many people have assumed that, as more and more women entered the paid labour force, their earnings would lift them and their families out of poverty. And it's true that the earnings of married women have done much to keep family poverty rates down.

It's also true that the wage gap between women and men is closing - at least for those who work full-time for a full year. But more and more women don't fit that pattern. It has been estimated that 40% of employed women, compared with 27% of men, are now working in non-standard jobs such as part-time, temporary, part-year and contract work, as well as self-employment. Many of these jobs do not provide women with the kind of financial security they need to support their families and provide for their future. That could result in higher rates of women's poverty down the road.

But statistics on women's low incomes don't tell the full story of women's poverty. In its 1998 Poverty Report, the United Nations says that, if we're really serious about wanting to eradicate poverty, we need to adopt a more comprehensive view - one that recognizes that poverty is more than a shortage of income. It springs from "a denial of opportunities and choices basic to human development," says the UN, and gender inequality has a critical impact - it perpetuates poverty both within and across generations.

A more comprehensive approach to dealing with poverty would look at how women's financial security may be undermined because they must combine paid work with unpaid family responsibilities; how lack of quality affordable child care limits the ability of women to earn wages and support their families; and how government policies - such as the Ontario government's decision to slash social assistance rates, or the federal government's recent changes in the unemployment insurance program - have an adverse impact on women, denying them income support when they are most in need.

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