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The Facts about Women and Poverty in Canada

At the Canadian Women’s Foundation, we want every woman living on a low income to have the chance to move herself and her children out of poverty.

In a well-off country like Canada, it’s hard to believe that poverty exists. But more than 1.9 million women in Canada live on a low income.

Certain groups of women are more likely to live on a low income than others, and many systemic barriers stand in the way of their financial stability.

Why is it urgent to address women’s poverty?

  • Helping women who live on a low income also helps their children, putting an end to a vicious cycle.
  • Poverty costs taxpayers and the government billions of dollars each year.
  • If we can level the playing field, we will all benefit.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation funds life-changing economic development programs designed especially for women. Through these unique programs, participants can learn a skilled trade, start a small business, or get work experience.

Frequently Asked Questions about Women and Poverty in Canada

  • Canada is a rich country. Is poverty really a problem?

    While Canada has no official definition of poverty, various measures of low income are used when it comes to assessing economic status.1 For a number of reasons, women are more likely to live on a low income than men (see below: Why are Women More Likely to be Poor?).2

    In Canada, more than 1.9 million women (age 18 and up) live on a low income, and more than 2.4 million women and girls (13.8%) are living on a low income as of 2016, based on low income measures after tax.3

    A 2018 Angus Reid study also indicated that women are more likely than men to experience poverty. The study looked at Canadians’ self-reported experiences of financial hardships. It suggests that 16% of Canadians could be categorized as “struggling” economically. This means that they face ongoing difficulty covering expenses for basics including food, utilities, winter clothing, housing, and dental care, and may have to use services including “pay day loans” and food banks to get by. 60% of those in the “struggling” category are women, while 40% are men. 4

    Some groups of women have higher rates of poverty and are more likely than others to be poor.5 The prevalence of low income among the following groups of females is particularly high:

    • Aboriginal females (women and girls) with registered or Indian treaty status — 32.3% 6
    • First Nations females (women and girls) — 34.3%, Métis females — 21.8%, Inuk (Inuit) females — 28%7
    • Racialized (visible minority) females (women and girls) – 21%8
    • Women with disabilities – 23% (based on 2014 data) 9
    • Immigrant women (refers to those who immigrated to Canada between 2011 and May 10, 2016) – 31.4%10
    • Single mothers and their children – 30.4%11
    • Children (age 0 to 17) living with single mothers – 42%12 (Compared to 25.5% of children in male lone-parent families and 11% in two-parent families.)
    • Senior women aged 65 and up – 16.3% (based on 2015 data)13

    In some parts of the country, there are appallingly high rates of poverty. For instance, 50% of status First Nations children in Canada live in poverty; that figure increases to 64% in Saskatchewan and 62% in Manitoba.14

    More than 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness annually, costing the economy $7 billion. On a given night, more than 35,000 Canadians are homeless.15 Women parenting on their own enter shelters at twice the rate of two-parent families.16 Domestic violence against women and children is a contributing factor to homelessness. When women become homeless, they are also at an increased risk of violence, sexual assault and exploitation.17

    Over 25 years, child and family poverty has increased by 25%; the number went from 15.8% of children in 1989 to 19.1% of children in 2012. More children and their families live in poverty as of 2012 than they did in 2000.18

    Compared to other industrialized countries, Canada’s overall poverty rate is average. In 2013, Canada ranked 20th out of 31 OECD countries for its poverty rate.19 As its poverty rate worsens, a country becomes less competitive, its people less healthy, and its society less equal.

    Poverty in Canada costs federal and provincial governments billions of dollars every year. In Ontario, poverty cost the government between $10.4 billion and $13.1 billion in 2008.20

  • Why are so many people in Canada poor?

    In Canada, people may be poor for many reasons:

    • They don’t have enough skills or education to get a good job, one where they can earn enough to live above the poverty line.
    • There are not enough good jobs in their community.
    • They have lost their job and can’t find another.
    • They have a physical or mental disability that limits their ability to work.
    • They have an accident or develop an illness and can no longer work.
    • They can’t find a good job because of workplace discrimination. Immigrants often have trouble finding work because of language barriers and the refusal of many employers to recognize education or experience from outside Canada, no matter how impressive.
    • They live on welfare. People who rely on social assistance live in poverty.21 For example, a woman raising one child on her own in Ontario could receive about $18,600 per year in welfare benefits.22 That’s only $1,550 per month. After paying rent, she would have very little left to buy food, clothing, transit fare, school supplies, and other essentials.
    • There has been a rise in precarious employment, with employers offering less certainty around payment, permanence and scheduling.23
  • How is poverty measured in Canada?

    As mentioned above, Canada has no official definition of poverty and there are three different income measures used to determine to what extent the population is living on a low income. 24 All of these measures have their limitations when it comes to providing a complete picture of poverty, and there have been calls for Canada to establish one official poverty line. 25 Many of the statistics cited above on women and poverty (See: Canada is a Rich Country? Is Poverty Really a Problem?) are based on Low Income Measures After Tax.

    A 2018 Angus Reid survey on personal experiences of poverty in Canada found that many of the Canadians who would be categorized as “struggling” are living above Statistics Canada’s low-income cut-offs. 22% of those in the “struggling” category have household incomes between $50,000 and $100,000.26

    In general, poverty can be described as ABSOLUTE or RELATIVE:

    • Absolute poverty describes deprivation, a situation where a person can’t afford basic needs such as adequate food, shelter, clothing, and transportation. A recent evaluation report for the Canadian Women’s Foundation shows that 50% of women who attend our economic development programs were below the low-income cut-off line and 83% had personal incomes below $30,000.27
    • Relative poverty describes inequality, a situation where a person is noticeably worse off than most people in his or her community. Many low-income families can barely afford to pay the rent and put food on the table, let alone pay for dental care, eyeglasses, school outings, sports equipment for the kids, Internet access, or prescription drugs. These are things that most people in Canada take for granted and would consider necessities.28

    We focus on inequality because a large gap between rich and poor has a measurable and significant negative impact on overall economic growth. Policies that improve income inequality, including those that support women’s participation in the workforce, also improve the overall economy.29

    In Canada, income inequality is on the increase. For every new dollar of wealth generated in Canada since 1999, 66 cents have gone to the wealthiest 20% of families.30

  • Why should we focus on women and poverty?

    Why should we focus on women and poverty? Because helping women living on a low income also helps children living on a low income.

    • When children are poor, it’s usually because their mother is poor. The number of lone- parent families is on the rise and 81.3% of all lone-parent families are headed by women. 31 In 2011, median employment income in female lone-parent families with children under 6 was $21,200, about 50% of the income of male lone-parent families, which was $43,300.32
    • Poverty makes children sick. Poor children often start out as underweight babies, which sets them up for future health problems. As they grow up, kids who live in poverty suffer from higher rates of asthma, diabetes, mental health issues—even heart disease.33
    • Poor children have more speech and hearing problems, and score lower on cognitive tests. Not surprisingly, they are also more likely to struggle in school. Research shows that poor children have “reduced motivation to learn, delayed cognitive development, lower achievement, less participation in extra-curricular activities, lower career aspirations, interrupted school attendance, lower university attendance, an increased risk of illiteracy, and higher drop-out rates.”34

    Another reason to focus on women’s poverty is because it endangers women’s safety.

    • Women who leave a partner to raise children on their own are many times more likely to live in poverty than if they stay with their partner.35
    • There’s plenty of evidence showing abused women sometimes stay in abusive relationships because they know that leaving will plunge themselves and their children into poverty.36
  • Why are women more likely to be poor?

    Why are women more likely to be poor for two main reasons:

    One  is that women spend more time doing unpaid work, leaving less time for paid work.

    • In 2015, women spent an average of 3.6 hours per day doing unpaid household work, which is 50% more than the 2.4 hours that men spent doing the same tasks. housework, childcare, meal preparation, eldercare, etc.).37
    • About 70% of women in dual-parent families with a child under the age of five also work outside the home.38 Women are more likely than men to sacrifice career opportunities and advancement for better work-life balance.39
    • In order to juggle their domestic responsibilities, many women choose part-time, seasonal, contract, or temporary jobs. Unfortunately, most of these jobs are low paid, with no security, few opportunities for advancement, and no health benefits.40
    • Women also make up the majority of Canada’s minimum-wage workers, and a third of working women make less than $15 per hour. 41 About three-quarters of part-time workers in Canada are women.42
    • Most poor women in Canada are working, but can’t earn enough to lift themselves out of poverty because they are clustered in these low-paid and precarious jobs.43
    • Canada’s lack of affordable childcare—and the lack of workplace policies such as flex-time and caregiver leave—often forces women into career choices that severely limit their earning power. That’s why many women refuse overtime and promotions, and select careers that promise to be ‘family-friendly.’ Women’s domestic responsibilities also make it harder for them to return to school or attend training sessions that could advance their career.
    • Women who interrupt their career to care for children or other family members have lower earnings: in one study, women aged 40 who had interrupted their careers for at least three years for maternity leave were earning about 30% less than women with no children.44
    • In 2015, mothers with at least one child (under age 18) earned .85 cents for every dollar earned by fathers, while women without children earned .90 cents for every dollar earned by women without children.45
    • The double-duty demands of home and workplace force many women to sacrifice their long-term economic security. This is a high price to pay for being a mother.The second main reason that women are more likely to be poor is that there is still a gender wage gap.
  • Is there really still a gender wage gap in Canada?

    Is there really still a gender wage gap in Canada? Yes, and it diminishes the earning power of all working women in Canada.

    On average, full-time working women in Canada earn only 75 cents for each dollar earned by men.46

    There are many reasons the gender wage gap continues to exist. For more information, see The Gender Wage Gap in Canada.

  • How can we help women move out of poverty?

    The Canadian Women’s Foundation works to advance women’s economic equality by bringing together community organizations to share research, skills, and best practices for moving low-income women out of poverty.

    We also invest in community programs that help women to increase their income by launching a small business, learning a skilled trade, or working in a job placement.

    In the programs we fund, women learn to identify their strengths and skills and build upon them. This positive ‘asset-based’ approach avoids creating long-term dependency and builds self-confidence—an essential tool for starting the difficult journey out of poverty. Each woman receives customized wrap-around supports and just-in-time services, whether her immediate priority is food and shelter, budgeting skills, developing personal goals, creating a business plan, learning a trade, or being matched with a mentor. The goal is to help her to build a solid foundation that includes stable housing, childcare, employment skills, self-confidence, financial literacy, a strong social network, and a supportive family.

    Through this approach, we have helped thousands of women from across Canada to move out of poverty. Along the way, each woman has contributed to Canada’s economy and created a more secure future for herself and her children.

Download the fact sheet: Facts About Women and Poverty

This fact sheet was last updated in September 2018.

  1. Government of Canada. A Backgrounder on Poverty in Canada. October 2016. Available here.
  2. Statistics Canada. Dan Fox and Melissa Moyser. Women in Canada: A Gender-Based Statistical Report. The Economic Well-Being of Women in Canada. May 2018. Available here.
  3. Statistics Canada. Table  11-10-0135-01   Low income statistics by age, sex and economic family type, 2016 data. Individuals are defined as having low income if their adjusted after-tax income falls below 50% of the median adjusted after-tax income. Adjusted after-tax income is derived by dividing household income by the square root of the household size and assigning this value to all persons in the household. Available here.
  4. Angus Reid Institute. What Does Poverty Look Like in Canada? July 2018.  Available here.
  5. Statistics Canada. Low income in Canada: A multi-line and multi-index Perspective, Summary, 2012. Available here.
  6. Statistics Canada, 2016 Census of Population, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 98-400-X2016173. Available here.
  7. Statistics Canada, 2016 Census of Population, Catalogue no. 98-400-X2016173. Available here.
  8. Statistics Canada, 2016 Census of Population, Catalogue no. 98-400-X2016211. Available here.
  9. Statistics Canada. Low income among persons with a disability in Canada, 2017. Available here.
  10. Statistics Canada, 2016 Census of Population, Catalogue no. 98-400-X2016206. Available here.
  11. Statistics Canada, 2016 Census of Population, Catalogue no. 98-400-X2016124. Available here.
  12. Statistics Canada, Children Living in Low Income Households, 2017 (based on 2016 Census). Available here.
  13. Statistics Canada. The Economic Well-Being of Women in Canada, 2018, based on 2015 data. Chart 7, Proportion of women and men aged 65 and over in low income, 1976 to 2015. Available here.
  14. David Macdonald, Daniel Wilson. Poverty or Prosperity: Indigenous Children in Canada, 2013. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Available here
  15. Stephen Gaetz, Tanya Gulliver and Tim Richter. The State of Homelessness in Canada: 2014. Toronto: The Homeless Hub Press. Available here
  16. When there’s no place like home: A snapshot of women’s homelessness in Canada. Page 2. YWCA Canada Available here
  17. Who is homeless? The Homeless Hub. Available here
  18. 2014 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Canada. Campaign 2000.Available here
  19. Government of Canada. A Backgrounder on Poverty in Canada. October 2016. Available here.
  20. The cost of poverty: An Analysis of the Economic Cost of Poverty in Ontario, Ontario Association of Food Banks, page 6. Available here.
  21. The only province in which welfare rates are above the poverty line is Newfoundland and Labrador, specifically for lone-parent families. Welfare in Canada 2012: Caledon Institute of Social Policy, page 53. Available here
  22. Ibid, Page 55.
  23. Precarious Employment in Canada: Does the Evidence Square with the Anecdotes? Available here.
  24. Statistics Canada. Low Income Measurement in Canada: What do Different Lines and Indexes Tell Us? Section 2: A Comparison of LICO, LIMs and MBM. Available here.
  25. Michael Wolfson, “If Canada Wants to help the poor, it needs a new way to measure poverty”, Globe & Mail, June 6, 2018. Available here.
  26. Angus Reid Institute. What Does Poverty Look Like in Canada? July 2018. Available here.
  27. Building a Stronger Future: Evaluation of the Canadian Centre for Women’s Economic Development 2009-2014, March 2015. Page 18. Canadian Women’s Foundation. Highlights report available here
  28. Rachel Singer. The Impact of Poverty on the Health of Children and Youth, Campaign 2000, 2003, Page 11-12. Available here
  29. Inequality and income, OECD. Available here
  30. David Macdonald. Outrageous Fortune: Documenting Canada’s Wealth Gap, 2014, Page 5. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Available here.
  31. Statistics Canada. Portrait of Children’s Family Life in Canada, 2016. Available here.
  32. Income composition in Canada, National Household Survey, 2011.
    Available here
  33. Rachel Singer. The Impact of Poverty on the Health of Children and Youth, Campaign 2000, 2003, Page 11-12. Available here
  34. Supporting Education: Building Canada – Child Poverty and Schools, 2009, Page 1. Canadian Teacher’s Federation. Available here
  35. Monica Townson. Canadian women on their own are poorest of the poor, Sept. 8, 2009. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Available here.
  36. Jane Gurr et al. Breaking the Links Between Poverty and Violence Against Women, 2008, Page 1. National Clearinghouse on Family Violence, Public Health Agency of Canada. Available here.
  37. CBC News, “Women Spend 50% more time doing unpaid work than men: Statistics Canada”, June 2017. Available here.
  38. Employment rate of women with children by family status and age of youngest child, 1976 to 2009, Women in Canada: A Gender-Based Statistical Report, Statistics Canada. Available here.
  39. Carole Vincent. Why do women earn less than men? A synthesis of findings from Canadian Microdata. 2013. Canadian Research Data Centre Network. Page 14. Available here.
  40. Carole Vincent. Why do women earn less than men? A synthesis of findings from Canadian Microdata. 2013. Canadian Research Data Centre Network. Page 17. Available here. 
  41. A. MacEwan. “Who Earns Minimum Wage?” Canadian Dimension, 2016. Data from 2015. Available here.
  42. Status of Women Canada. “Women and Paid Work – Infographic” 2017 (based on 2015 data). Available here.
  43. See for example: Dominique Fleury and Myriam Fortin. When Working Is Not Enough To Escape Poverty: An Analysis Of Canada’s Working Poor, Policy Research Group, Human Resources and Social Development Canada, August 2006.
    Available here.
    See also: Stuart Murray and Hugh Mackenzie. Bringing Minimum Wages Above the Poverty Line, March 2007, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Available here.
  44. Xuelin Zhang. Earnings of women with and without children, 2009. Statistics Canada. Available here.
  45. Statistics Canada. Women and Paid Work by Melissa Moyser, March 2017. Available here.
  46. Canadian Income Survey, Statistics Canada. Table 206-0053 – “Distribution of employment income of individuals by sex and work activity, Canada, provinces and selected census metropolitan areas, annual,” CANSIM. Available here.