Women and Poverty: A Canadian Context

Canadian Poverty

Poverty in Canada has been a persistent problem for women. Despite the economic wealth of Canada many women still find themselves below the Low Income Cut Off (LICO). Although poverty affects a large portion of the population, women are at higher risk of poverty then men. The goal of this paper is to examine three distinctive factors that contribute to women’s poverty. First, why women are so strongly impacted by poverty in Canada. Second, what specific groups of women are affected by poverty and finally what can be done to relieve the pressure of poverty on Canadian women?

What is Poverty?

There is no definitive definition of poverty in Canada. However poverty is measured by Statistics Canada and other organizations such as UNICF and the United Nations Development Program.  Low Income Cut Off is used regularly in Canada to measure poverty, even though Statics Canada has continually stated it’s not tool intended to measure poverty. Poverty is the deprivation of well-being due to lack of monetary funds to procure necessary resources such as food, water, clothing and shelter. There are two forms of poverty. Absolute poverty or extreme poverty is a standard set between countries that places a dollar value on the absolute basic necessities needed for survival. In 2008, the World Bank increased the poverty threshold to $1.25 purchasing power parity (PPP). Individuals living in absolute poverty experience severe malnutrition, disease, illiteracy, higher infant mortality and shorter life span. Relative poverty is a measure of wealth inequality of one group or person relative to another group or persons. Relative poverty is not based on sole survival of a person; rather it is a measure of economic advantage of one over another.

Causes: Why are Women so Strongly Impacted by Poverty?

Many Canadian citizens believe there is true equality among the sexes, unfortunately this assumption is incorrect.  According to the article, Income and Women’s Health, published by Canadian Women’s Health Network; “The causes of women’s poverty are complexand involve sexist and racist polices and attitudes toward women and the work women do” (2013). Women in poverty are less likely to have access to social resources, live shorter lives, have increased health problems, face social inadequacy and struggle with everyday activities. In Canada, it’s been proven that one in every five women is considered poor. So what constitutes these high poverty rates in women?

The Gender Wage Gap; is a significant factor in women’s poverty in Canada. The gender wage gap is regarded as the difference between wages earned by men and women. When comparing salaries between Canadian men and women, women earn 72 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Women are also still segregated to lower paid jobs such as childcare, entry level health services and secretarial work. 64 percent of minimum wage jobs are held by women. In 2011, the British Columbia’s provincial government finally raised minimum wage to $10.25/hour. Prior to this increase, minimum wage in B.C was virtually frozen at $8.00/hour for nearly a decade. Minimum wage jobs, that are primarily held by women, are problematic; part-time employment, temporary or contract work with poor job security and inadequate benefits are counterproductive when trying to overcome poverty. As cost of living increases steadily year after year many women still cannot afford the basic necessities. Much of a woman’s work is also unpaid.  According to Income and Women’s Health; “Women do more than 80 percent of the unpaid caregiving in Canada”. This sexual division in labour furthers the discrepancy between men and women. Due to the discrepancy between male and female workers in Canada women have a severe economic disadvantage.

Maternity leave; also hinders a women’s ability to overcome poverty. Women have the tendency to be the primary caregivers for children and dependents. With this added challenge women tend to “double-up” on duties both while working and within the house hold. Many minimum wage jobs offer little in regards to benefits. Without any benefits or a significant amount of time spent at a particular place of employment many women are unable to qualify for Employment Insurance (EI). EI allows parents to receive benefits up to a year while caring for a child. However, without out EI women may have to use up savings, rely on family and friends and seek social assistance to support themselves and their family.

Dependent care; is a key issue that also contributes to women’s poverty. Unlike men, women are the primary care givers of their children and dependents. When women have to leave their place of employment to raise children their full participation in the work force is affected. Without universal day care in Canada, many mothers are left struggling. According to Peacock, “Elusive daycare spots in B.C. can set parents back between $750 and $1,500 a month per child for a licensed facility”. For a mother to gainfully employed reasonable daycare is a necessity. One also must consider if a mother is working at minimum wage the likelihood that she can afford upwards of 1500 dollars a month on daycare is irrational.

Sexism; is an additional daunting task women in poverty must maneuver. As stated by Hicks; “Sexism refers to prejudice or discrimination based on a person’s sex. It is a system of discriminatory interrelated physical and social controls, derogatory beliefs, and institutional-and societal-level policies” (207). In many instances sexism is so sublet and entrenched in society it goes unnoticed, allowing it to become increasing accepted. Sexism is a result of a traditional, patriarch society. Hicks continues to state; “Men are still major stakeholders in Canadian society, men continue to be represented in higher number in positions of authority, and male interests continue to take precedence over those of females” (201). For women to be removed from poverty sexism needs to be replaced with gender equality.

Poverty in Various Groups of Women

The impact of poverty does not generalize; poverty instead has the ability to affect different groups and classes of women. This strain of the paper will analyse how three groups of women experience the severity of poverty.

Female headed lone-parent households; “are almost five times likely to be poor than those in two-parent families” (Hicks, 199). Many women in lone-parent household are below the LICO and reliant on social services. Women are targeted by poverty on such a considerable level that the term, feminization of poverty, has been coined. Single mothers are the poorest family type in Canada. 38.1 percent of single mothers live in poverty where 11.9 percent of single fathers do. Many single mothers are discouraged from working due to the monetary cost of childcare. With lack of employment and high costs of child care many mothers find themselves just getting by. In many cases when employment is procured it pays little, to nothing more than what the mother was receiving on social assistance. At this point, the mother can make two distinctive choices. Should she continue to work at a low wage and sacrifice spending time away from her child, only to have a daycare raise her child; or does she rely on social assistance and spend valuable time with her growing child? Many single mothers in Canada are faced with this decision. Women and men’s poverty is incredibly different. Male poverty is typically correlated to direct low-wage employment. However, women’s poverty is affected by further hardships such as “divorce and separation, and their responsibilities as mothers, homemakers, caregivers, and nurturers” (Hicks, 212).

Aboriginal women; are an additional group of women that are considerably affected by poverty. Many aboriginal women must leave their homes in search for work. When women leave their homes in search of employment, their risk of living in poverty increases. An article released by Women’s Legal Educational and Action Fund states, “44% of Aboriginal women living off reserve, and 47% of Aboriginal women living on-reserve live in poverty. The average annual income for Aboriginal women is $13,300, compared with $18,200 for Aboriginal men and $19,350 for non-Aboriginal women”. Impacts of colonization have caused the high percentage of Aboriginal women in poverty. The residential school system virtually removed all self-worth from the Aboriginal peoples. Residential school systems replaced education with physical labour and innocence was stolen by vile individuals. Many of Canadian citizens do not fully understand the tragedy forced upon Aboriginals in Canada. With this lack of knowledge correlations between the high percentages of Aboriginal women in poverty is not understood.  Residential schools have caused numerous, lasting effects on family generations. To help manage the pain and cope with the loss of their culture, family, and dignity, some aboriginals have turned to using alcohol and drugs. The lack of social healing resources have been cause for greater concern. Without the proper tools to heal, some families have become broken, often segregating the women and children. Women who have left their husbands due to abuse are often unable to find affordable housing. In many communities women shelters are often full and no place for women with children, this is why many Aboriginal women found themselves ‘couch surfing’ while looking for affordable housing. Considering nearly half of Aboriginal women in Canada are living in poverty the search for affordable housing often seems impossible.

Visible Minorities; adults are less likely to hold professional or managerial positions and more likely to be in lower-paying service or manual labour positions” (49, Saraswati). Visible minorities are a term used in Canada to define “persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour” (261, Hicks). In Canada, visible minorities have always faced racism and discrimination; unfortunately women of visible minorities have to battle an additional disadvantage, sexism, the gender wage gap and many are new immigrants. Many women who are a visible minority have high-school or post-secondary educations, yet still have difficulty obtaining employment on the grounds that their educational qualifications are often considered unacceptable. Because of these barriers, 29 percent of racialized women live in poverty. “African Canadian women are the poorest racialized group, with a poverty rate of 57%” (Nova Scotia Association of Women’s Centers). Recent visible minority immigrants are three times more likely to live in poverty then a person who is born in Canada. It also takes roughly twenty years for poverty to equalize between visible minorities and someone who is born in Canada. These statistics prove that recent immigrants and visible minorities are at a severe disadvantage in Canada.

 Disabled women and the elderly; are also at a higher risk for poverty. Women tend to make up a large percentage of the senior population in Canada. In individuals aged 90 or older, women accounted for 75 percent. The Baby Boom generation contributes largely to the senior population in Canada, life expectancies have also increased. Often many seniors in Canada are on a pension plan or social assistance, these sums of money are typically fixed and not of significant value. Additional medical costs due to increased age can also cause financial burden on the elderly. Unfortunately many care facilities are underfunded and exhibit sub-par care. Many women who are 65 or older are containing to work to bring in extra income, however with increased age also comes increased disability. Individuals with disabilities are often found under the LICO. Similar to the elderly, when a person is disabled they tend to have increased medical costs. Finding affordable, appropriate housing for some is also difficult. The independent living movement is to aid individuals with disabilities to achieve self-direction and some form of self-sufficiency. The step away from expensive institutions is a positive step for disabled persons, yet living independently also has its financial challenges. Employment is an additional challenge for persons who may be disabled as they are sadly stigmatize to some degree.

Women in Poverty and Children

When mothers live in poverty her children usually do as well. Nearly one in eight children is poor in Canada. Poverty within mothers influences the community the child will live in and the education they will receive. Low income levels affect the child’s health. Income and Women’s Health states that, “malnourished children have diminished capacities to learn both socially and academically”.  Poverty effects a child’s cognitive, social, and physical development. Often mothers are noted as the working poor. Working long hours at a low wage is detrimental to positive attachment between mother and child.  Because children are reliant on guardians and caregivers they enter poverty due to the social economic status of others. When a mother is in poverty the likely hood of a child overcoming poverty is small. With limited recourses, both socially and academically children tend to follow the paths of their mother, this results in a revolving door effect.

Possible Poverty Cures

            It’s understood that poverty is extremely detrimental to a women’s emotional and physical well-being, poverty also has the ability to affect various social classes, ethnicities, ages and disabilities and women’s children. With such a large percentage of the population feeling the effects of poverty why hasn’t significant steps been taken to help individuals in need? Acknowledging that, “eliminating poverty is an extremely ambitious goal. Yet there is evidence that improving health outcomes for poor people also improves health outcomes for everybody else in the community” (Income and Women’s Health). For many years different women’s groups have fought to help eradicate poverty among women. A major goal is the implementation of a provincial poverty reduction plan in British Columbia. Some suggested steps are employment equity that allows all women, minority groups and Aboriginals equal access to education and better paying jobs. Abolish the gender wage gap. Devising a national daycare policy, allowing women to enter or re-enter the work force to become contributing citizens economically. Readdressing social housing policies and examining the affordable housing market; making adjustments as required. Investigate inadequate senior and disability homes as well as the monetary cost involved. Enforcing community-based resources; and issuing government funding to assist in the independent living movement for disabled persons. Women play a very special role in society; they should not have to be burdened with the crippling force of poverty. Poverty can be removed from Canadian society. With education, public resources and changes in government policy it would be possible, however the likelihood of it occurring in the near future is slim. Until then individuals and women’s groups will continue the battle to raise awareness and aid in any situations they can, the first step is ending inequality and discrimination.



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