The Facts About Women and Poverty

In a well-off country like Canada, it’s hard to believe that poverty exists. But one in 10 Canadians are poor, and 1.5 million women in Canada live on a low income. Certain groups of women are more likely to be poor than others, and many systemic barriers stand in the way of their financial stability.

One of the key reasons to address women’s poverty is that helping poor women helps poor children, putting an end to a vicious cycle. Another reason is that poverty costs taxpayers and the government billions of dollars each year. If we can level the playing field, we will all benefit.

At the Canadian Women's Foundation, we want every low-income woman to be given the chance to move herself and her children out of poverty. We help by funding life-changing programs designed especially for them. Through these unique programs, participants can learn a skilled trade, start a small business, or get work experience. 

Here are some commonly asked questions about women and poverty in Canada:

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1. Canada is a rich country - is poverty really a problem?
2. Why are so many people in Canada poor?
3. How is poverty measured in Canada?
4. Why should we focus on women and poverty?
5. Why are women more likely to be poor?
6. How can we help women move out of poverty?
7. Sources

Canada is a rich country—is poverty really a problem?

About 1 in 10 people in Canada are living below the low-income cut-off, after taxes and government transfers are taken into account.[1] More than 1.5 million women in Canada are living on a low income.[2]

Some groups have higher rates of poverty and are more likely than others to be poor.[3]They include:

● First Nations women (living off reserve)—37%[4]
● Métis and Inuit women (living in the provinces)—23%[5]
● Visible minority women – 28%[6]
● Women with disabilities – 33%[7]
● Immigrant women – 20%[8]
● Single mothers – 21%[9]
● Children in female lone-parent families – 23%[10] (Compared to 6% of children in two-parent families)[11]
● Single senior women – 16%[12]

■      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.[13]

■      More than 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness annually, costing the economy $7 billion. On a given night, more than 35,000 Canadians are homeless.[14]  Women parenting on their own enter shelters at twice the rate of two-parent families.[15] 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.[16]

■      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.[17]

■      Compared to other developed countries, Canada’s poverty rate is higher than most—we rank 23rd out of 34 OECD countries.[18] Canada’s poverty rate of 11.9% is slightly above the OECD average of 11%.[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?

■      Poverty can be described as ABSOLUTE or RELATIVE:

□ Absolute poverty describes deprivation, a situation wherea 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.[24]

□ 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.[25]

■      Our statistics are based upon Low-Income Cut Offs (LICO) as determined by Statistics Canada.[26] LICOs measure relative povertyand inequality.

■      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.[27]

■      In Canada, income inequality is on the increase. For every new dollar of wealth generated in Canada since 1999, 66 cents has gone to the wealthiest 20% of families.[28]

Why should we focus on women and poverty?

■      Helping poor women helps poor children.

□ When children are poor, it’s usually because their mother is poor. The number of lone-parent families is on the rise and 80 per cent of all lone-parent families are headed by women.[29]  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.[30]

□ 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.[31]

□ 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.”[32]

■      Poverty endangers women’s safety.

□ Women who leave a partner to raise children on their own are more than five times likely to live in poverty than if they stay with their partner.[33]

□ 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.[34]

Why are women more likely to be poor?

■      Women are more likely to be poor for two main reasons:

1. Women spend more time doing unpaid work, leaving less time for paid work.

□ Each day, men and women work about the same number of hours, but women do more unpaid work (housework, childcare, meal preparation, eldercare, etc.).[35] Among families with both parents working full time, women spend 49.8 hours per week on childcare, while men spend 27.2 hours per week.[36] Among full-time working couples, women spend 13.9 hours per week on household work, while men spend 8.6 hours.[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]

□ Almost 70% of part-time workers are women[41] and 60% of minimum-wage earners are female.[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]

□ Canadian women with children earn 12 per cent less that 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.

2.    Women face a gender wage gap.

□ On average, full-time working women in Canada earn only 74 cents for each dollar earned by men.[46] (See our factsheet on the gender wage gap for more information.)

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.



Stacey Rodas, Manager of Public Relations and Online Engagement
Canadian Women's Foundation
504-133 Richmond St. W, Toronto, ON, M5H 2L3
416.365.1444 extension 240



[1]Canadian Income Survey, persons in low income, Canada and provinces, 2012. Statistics Canada.

[2]Persons living in low income after tax, 2012. Statistics Canada.

[3]Low income in Canada: A multi-line and multi-index Perspective, 2012. Statistics Canada.

[4]First Nations, Metis and Inuit Women, Women in Canada: A Gender-based Statistical Report. Based on 2005 data and low-income cut-offs before tax. Statistics Canada.

[5]Ibid. In 2006, a total of 169,480 women and girls were living on a reserve (status and non-status included) and are not included in this statistic.

[6]Visible Minority Women, Women in Canada: A Gender-Based Statistical Report. Based on 2005 data and low income cut-offs before tax., p. 34. Statistics Canada.

[7]Participation and Activity Limitation Survey, 2006. Statistics Canada.

[8]Immigrant Women, Women in Canada, A Gender-Based Statistical report, 2012. Based on 2005 data and low-income cut-offs before tax. Statistics Canada.

[9]Low income and family status, Women in Canada, A Gender-Based Statistical report, based on 2008 data.

[10]Persons in low income after tax. 2011. Based on after-tax data. Statistics Canada.

[11]Ibid. 2011.

[12]Ibid. 2011.

[13]David Macdonald, Daniel Wilson. Poverty or Prosperity: Indigenous Children in Canada, 2013. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

[14]Stephen Gaetz, Tanya Gulliver and Tim Richter. The State of Homelessness in Canada: 2014. Toronto: The Homeless Hub Press.

[15]When there’s no place like home: A snapshot of women’s homelessness in Canada. Page 2. YWCA Canada.

[17]2014 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Canada. Campaign 2000.

[18]Poverty Rates and Poverty Gaps. OECD Factbook 2014: Economic, Environmental and Social Statistics. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

[19]Society at a glance 2014 highlights: Canada OECD social indicators, OECD.

[20]The cost of poverty: An Analysis of the Economic Cost of Poverty in Ontario, Ontario Association of Food Banks., page 6.

[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.

[22]Ibid, Page 55.

[23]Precarious Employment in Canada: Does the Evidence Square with the Anecdotes?

[24]Building a Stronger Future: Evaluation of the Canadian Centre for Women’s Economic Development 2009-2014, March 2015. Page 18. Canadian Women’s Foundation. 

[25]Rachel Singer. The Impact of Poverty on the Health of Children and Youth, Campaign 2000, 2003, Page 11-12.

[26]The statistics used in Question 1 are based upon Low-Income Cut Offs (LICO) from Statistics Canada. LICOs describe an income ‘line’ which changes according to the number of people in a family, the size of their community, and so on. Families living below LICO have to spend more of their income on necessities than the average family. While LICO was originally designed to measure relative poverty, however, some scholars argue that LICO should now be considered a measure of absolute poverty because its baseline calculation is no longer being updated. See: Are Statistics Canada’s Low-Income Cutoffs an absolute or relative poverty measure? by Andrew Mitchell and Richard Shillington, undated.

[27]Inequality and income, OECD.

[28]David Macdonald. Outrageous Fortune: Documenting Canada’s Wealth Gap, 2014, Page 5. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

[29]Portrait of families and living arrangements in Canada, 2012. Statistics Canada.

[30]Income composition in Canada, National Household Survey, 2011.

[31] Rachel Singer. The Impact of Poverty on the Health of Children and Youth, Campaign 2000, 2003, Page 11-12.

[32]Supporting Education: Building Canada - Child Poverty and Schools, 2009, Page 1. Canadian Teacher’s Federation.

[33]Monica Townson. Canadian women on their own are poorest of the poor, Sept. 8, 2009. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

[34]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.

[35]Veerle Miranda. Cooking, Caring and Volunteering: Unpaid Work Around The World, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, March 2011, p. 12.

[36]Time spent on unpaid childcare in the household, 2010, Statistics Canada.

[37]Time spent on household domestic work, 2010. Statistics Canada.

[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.

[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.

[40]Ibid, Page 17.

[41]Part-time employment of women and men, 1976-2009. Women in Canada: A Gender-Based Statistical Report, Statistics Canada.

[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.

See also: Stuart Murray and Hugh Mackenzie. Bringing Minimum Wages Above the Poverty Line, March 2007, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

[44]Xuelin Zhang. Earnings of women with and without children, 2009. Statistics Canada.


[46]Distribution of employment income of individuals by sex and work activity, Canada, provinces, and selected census metropolitan areas, 2014.