Photograph: Getty Images | Illustration: Genevieve Pizzale
Currently 12 per cent of Canadians are living in poverty and the federal government has a plan to cut that in half by 2030
Poverty affects approximately 12 per cent of Canadians, but the solution to reduce poverty has been an ongoing topic of debate. With the federal government’s new poverty reduction plan, titled Opportunity for All, there are now some real goals in place to reduce poverty significantly over the next decade—dropping poverty by 20 per cent by 2020 and 50 per cent by 2030.
What may be the most surprising is that up until the release of the plan in August of 2018, there has never been an official poverty line in Canada. While organizations like Statistics Canada have produced “low-income” information, they’ve been quick to avoid adding the label “poverty” as it’s a term that encompasses more than just income, including other issues which have been difficult to measure and track in a meaningful way.
Here’s a primer on some of the basic facts of what it means to live in poverty, what the new poverty reduction plan entails and some of the snapshots of what living in poverty looks like in parts of Canada.
How do we define poverty in Canada?
According to the federal plan, poverty is defined as, “The condition of a person who is deprived of the resources, means, choices and power necessary to acquire and maintain a basic level of living standards and to facilitate integration and participation in society.” While this speaks to the condition of marginalized persons living below a basic standard of living, up until recently, there hasn’t been any real measure to define poverty in a financial way. Dr. Jennifer Robson, associate professor of Political Management at Carleton University (who was also a part of the early conversations surrounding the federal plan), explains that previously the government of Canada had ways to measure low-income, but not poverty, specifically. And without a real way to measure the number of persons living in poverty—or the cost at which puts them in poverty—it’s very difficult to create a realistic and attainable goal to reduce it.
What is now helping define the Official Poverty Line in Canada is the new Market Basket Measure (MBM). While the government has previously looked at things like Low-Income Measure (which measures the median income in Canada), the MBM is an absolute measure of poverty. “We’re going to define a basket of goods that we think are absolutely critical for well-being, meeting basic needs and being included in society, according to reasonable standards in Canada,” says Dr. Robson. “While the cost of those might change over time because of the consumer price index or inflation, for example, the underlying basket is supposed to remain fairly constant until you revise it.” This MBM calculates goods and services such as nutritional food, clothing and footwear, shelter, transportation and even recreation, entertainment and things like school supplies as a part of the needs for the basic standard of living. Where it varies across regions is that it takes into account the prices for items (such as nutritious food, for instance) may be higher in some areas, such as in northern communities.
How will we see the poverty reduction plan in action?
Within this new 108-page poverty-reduction plan are changes to existing benefit implementations and social programs to help reduce poverty in a real way. While Dr. Robson describes the ways in which some of these goals are quite achievable, she points out that there is no new funding for this program, but rather just streamlining the process and making the existing funds work in a more coherent manner.
Where we’re really going to see a difference, says Dr. Robson, is the way in which people living in poverty are going to receive the benefits laid out in the plan. Most people are aware of the Canada Child Benefit, which is now indexed with inflation (to ensure the benefits keep up with the rising cost of housing, goods and services), and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, which aids low-income single seniors with a top-up to their pension. According to the federal plan, The Canada Workers Benefit (formerly the Working Income Tax Benefit) “is a refundable tax credit helping to supplement the earnings of low-income working-age adults.” While the government has increased the value of all three of these benefits, what they’ve also done is automated them. “Previously, to get this benefit if you were a low-income person, you had to file your tax return, and fill out a whole separate form that had 42 different steps to the calculation to figure out how much you were going to get,” says Dr. Robson. “A lot of people who were eligible for it weren’t getting it just because they missed that form, it was too complicated or they didn’t know what this was. So, now the government has made it so that people will be automatically assessed and receive the benefit if they are eligible.” Along with more streamlined benefits, investing more into social programs—initiatives such as a national housing strategy, an Indigenous Housing strategy and more attention paid to skills and employment training—should help support many Canadians living in poverty and prevent more Canadians from slipping into it.
As a community, how aware are we of poverty?
This is a tough one to gauge. Ask your fellow middle-class peers—really anyone living above the poverty line—and they’ll likely give you a cursory response of how they’re aware that people are living in poverty, but likely aren’t aware of how many—or even what that means from a numbers standpoint. Again, it’s a hard number to pinpoint and the concept of poverty (because of its previous lack of definition) can often seem like an abstract for anyone not living in it. Even when you tell someone that 12 per cent of Canadians are currently living in poverty, that seems like a low number until you consider how many people that actually is: Approximately 4.9 million Canadians. A much more staggering figure to think about, and one that puts poverty in Canada into perspective, even if you don’t see it in your own backyard.
- The Official Poverty Line in Canada for a family of two adults and two children is averaged at $37,542 (cut in half for individuals living on their own).
- The lowest is $32,871 in Blainville, Quebec and the highest is $40,777 in Cold Lake, Alberta.
- 9.5 per cent of Indigenous people living off-reserve were living in deep income poverty in 2016, which denotes an income below 75 per cent of Canada’s Poverty Line, which is $28,156 for a family of two adults and two children, and $14,078 for single adults.
- Working-age women and men make up about the same amount of people living in poverty, however women are at a higher risk of living in poverty due to lower salaries compared to men, being more likely to lead a single-parent family and being more likely to have part-time or temporary jobs.
- Persons living with disabilities are 14.6 per cent at risk of living in poverty.