The Facts about Women and Poverty in Canada

What is gendered poverty?

Poverty is a global problem and eradicating it is of key importance (United Nations Department of Economic and Global Affairs). It is the single largest determinant of health (World Health Organization). Twelve percent of the population of Canada live in relative income poverty, and 33% would be at risk of falling into poverty if they had to forgo three months of income (OECD, 2020).

For women and gender-diverse people, poverty is caused by unique factors and leads to unique outcomes. It’s grounded in sexism, gender-based discrimination, and other interrelated forms of discrimination and barriers. Women and gender-diverse people face high risks of poverty due to systemic barriers to work and the realities of low-paying, precarious jobs. Poverty, economic instability, and income insecurity has a direct impact on quality of life, safety, well-being, and access to basic human needs like food, housing, and healthcare, as well as the ability to care for dependents.

According to the Low Income Measure, 10% of women in Canada live on low incomes (Statistics Canada, 2022). Those who face multiple barriers are at higher risk of poverty, including racialized women, women with disabilities, and single mothers.

“Poverty is a complex and multifaceted issue that needs to be understood and addressed from a holistic perspective. The lived experience of poverty intersects with and informs multiple aspects of people’s lives including housing, health, income, employment, community and education” (MacKay, 2018).

“The feminization of poverty refers to the process in which deep-seated and multidimensional cultural, social, and structural factors cause and exacerbate poverty among women and girls. In nations throughout the world, women and girls are restricted of their choices and opportunities in ways that their male counterparts are not, due to gender bias and discrimination” (Melo, 2019).

Based on the Market Basket Measure used by the Government of Canada, a family lives in poverty if it does not have enough income to purchase a specific basket of goods and services in its community. The measure varies across the country based on the cost of living (Heisz, Statistics Canada, 2019). This measure has its limitations. For example, it does not include expenses such as daycare or prescription medications, and it may underestimate housing costs. It is also not applicable to territories and First Nation reserves, which means it excludes regions with high prevalence of poverty and low income (Sarangi, 2020).

Statistics Canada (2022) also reports on the proportion of people living on low income using the Low Income Measure, a relative measure which says that individuals live in low income if their household after-tax income falls below half of the median after-tax income, adjusting for household size.

Why is ending gendered poverty so urgent?

  • Economic stability is important to everyone’s health and well-being, safety, quality of life, and human rights.
  • Women’s economic stability and independence helps to break the cycle of poverty for them, their children, dependents, and future generations. When women do well, everyone does well.
  • It’s good for the economy. Canada could add $150 billion to its GDP by 2026 by advancing gender equality and boosting women’s workforce participation (Devillard et al., McKinsey & Company, 2017).
  • Maintaining income disparities and a society where people are at risk of poverty is expensive. Poverty and its negative outcomes costs taxpayers, provincial and federal governments billions of dollars annually (Canada Without Poverty).

Frequently Asked Questions about Women and Gendered Poverty

Women in Canada have had lower average personal incomes than men, a pattern that that has held since 1976. In 2019, average individual income for women was $43,010, compared to $60,680 for men (Statistics Canada, 2021). But this gender disparity has narrowed over time with growth in women’s personal income (Fox and Moyser, Statistics Canada, 2018).

“In 2019, around 1.44 million women were living in low income families in Canada. Female individuals represented the largest population living in low income households compared to their male counterpart” (Statista Research Department, 2021).

Analyzing 2018 tax data, men tax filers (29.7%) were more likely than women tax filers (26.8%) to exit low income after being in that situation in 2017. The median length of time men stayed in low income (2.3 years) was shorter than that of women (2.6 years) (Statistics Canada, 2021).

About one third of people in Canada (36%) struggle to manage day-to-day finances and pay bills. Nearly one in 10 (eight per cent) say they are falling behind on bill payments and other financial commitments. Women are less confident than men that they would be able to manage an unexpected expense of $2,000 (Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, 2019).

Income for women is highest in couples and lowest for lone mothers. In 2016, “lone mothers had the lowest average adjusted income ($25,300), followed by those who were unattached ($33,700). The average adjusted incomes of lone fathers and unattached men were similar (around $40,300). Notably, the average adjusted income of lone mothers was $15,000 less than that of lone fathers” (Fox and Moyser, Statistics Canada, 2018).

A household is in core housing need if it falls below one or more standards of adequacy, suitability, and affordability and the household has to spend 30% or more of its before-tax income to access local housing that meets all three standards (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, 2019).

Overall, 28% of women-led households in Canada are in core housing need. Forty-two per cent of women living on reserves live in houses that need major repair (Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Network).

“Historically, homelessness had been a problem mainly of single men. More recently, it has been increasing among other populations and research has focussed on women, Indigenous people, youth, recent immigrants, veterans, and sexual minorities” (Uppal, Statistics Canada, 2022).

Thirty-six per cent of people experiencing homelessness in Canada are women-identified (Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Network).

Among people who make housing decisions for their household, “women who experienced homelessness reported worse socioeconomic and health outcomes than men in the same situation … among those who experienced both unsheltered and hidden homelessness in the past, women were 23 percentage points more likely than men to report that they had difficulty in meeting their financial needs in the past year” (Uppal, Statistics Canada, 2022).

As women are more likely to face hidden homelessness, women’s homelessness in Canada has been underestimated. It’s “often hidden behind closed doors. It includes couch surfing with friends, trading sex for housing, or living in a tiny, overcrowded apartment.” Contributing factors include a lack of safe and affordable housing and lack of housing supports specific to the needs of diverse women and gender-diverse people. Indigenous women and girls, and gender-diverse people face particularly egregious levels of housing need. Homeless women and gender-diverse people are uniquely at risk of abuse and assault, or returning to situations of abuse, which can perpetuate the cycle of poverty and homelessness (Schwan et al., 2020).

Food insecurity is especially high for single women parents with children less than 18 years old (Statistics Canada, 2020). Food insecurity is also greater for some groups including households needing social assistance and people who identify as Indigenous or Black (Polsky and Garriguet, Statistics Canada, 2022).

According to Angus Reid Institute’s (2022), “a larger proportion of women than men are being squeezed by cost of living increases and fall into the ‘Losing Pace’ or ‘Left Behind’ groups.” When it comes to unexpected costs, “while at least half of men of all ages can handle a surprise expense of more than $1,000, that is not the case for women. For women under the age of 55, three-in-five instead say they could not handle that large of an unexpected bill, including one-quarter of women aged 35 to 54 who say they could not manage any unanticipated expense as their budget is already too stretched.”

Income can come from many sources, including employment earnings, investments, and government transfer programs. “In general, women receive a smaller share of their personal income from employment earnings than do men (66.9% versus 76.2% in 2015), and a similar share from non-earnings market sources (15.6% and 14.4%, respectively)” (Fox and Moyser, Statistics Canada, 2018).

Overall, in 2021, women’s economic participation rate (60.6%) and employment rate (56.3%) were lower than men’s (69.6% and 64.3%, respectively) (Statistics Canada, 2022). Women’s median hourly wage ($24.40) is also lower than men’s ($28.00) (Statistics Canada, 2022).

Experiences of poverty and low income depend on the intersecting barriers and forms of discrimination people face based on factors such as race, citizenship status, sexuality, gender identity, ability, health status, and age. The prevalence of low income among the following groups are particularly high:

When it comes to people in Canada with disabilities, “women not only have a higher rate of disability than men, but also outnumber men among those with disabilities. Similarly, women outnumber men among those who are without work but have work potential, among lone parents, among those living alone, and among those living in poverty in general. As well, women tend to have lower rates of employment overall and lower levels of income” (Morris et al., Statistics Canada, 2018).

Some populations in Canada face higher rates of core housing need. Groups with relatively high rates of core housing need include: Inuit women (39.4%); First Nations women (24.5%); West Asian women (e.g. Afghan and Iranian women) (31.2%); Korean women (27.6%); recent immigrant women (28.4%); Black women (22.4%); and Arab women (25.7%) (Statistics Canada, 2019).

Among people who make housing decisions for their household, “First Nations people living off-reserve (12%), Métis (6%), and Inuit (10%) were more likely to have experienced unsheltered homelessness than the non-Indigenous population. Homelessness was also more common among women who were sexual minorities (8%)” (Uppal, Statistics Canada, 2022).

When it comes to young people, there are typically more visibly homeless young men than young women, “which may be an outcome of the fact that young women are especially at risk of crime and violence (including sexual assault) while homeless, leading them to find alternatives to the streets, even if those alternatives pose other significant risks” (Canadian Observatory on Homelessness). LGBTQ2 young people are also overrepresented in the homeless youth population, and they face frequent incidents of homophobic and transphobic violence on the streets and accessing shelter services (Canadian Observatory on Homelessness).

The Canadian Women’s Foundation’s (2020) Until All of Us Have Made It report highlights how gender-based inequalities play out for diverse segments of women and gender diverse-people. Key findings include:

  • 63% of all respondents believe more education would help them secure an income that better covers monthly expenses and allows for some savings. It goes up to 72% for those who identify as 2SLBTGQI+ and 68% for those aged 18 to 34.
  • 28% of all respondents say it’s difficult to find affordable housing. It goes up to 33% for racialized respondents, 34% for Indigenous respondents, 37% for those with a physical disability and 41% for those with other disabilities, 51% for those who identify as 2SLBTGQI+, and 43% for those aged 18 to 34.
  • 26% of respondents say there is little money left over once they’ve paid their rent or mortgage. It goes up to 44% for respondents with a physical disability and 35% for respondents with other disabilities, 31% for those who are newcomers and recent immigrants, and 46% for those who identify as 2SLBTGQI+.

Colonial legacy and anti-Indigenous racism

Due to colonization, residential schools, and marginalizing policies, women in First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities face lower employment rates and earnings on average than non-Indigenous women, as well as complex socio-economic barriers to pursuing higher education (Arriagada, Statistics Canada, 2016).

Overall, “this persistence of longstanding social and economic marginalization has given rise to large numbers of Indigenous women living in vulnerable situations, including homelessness, and abusive relationships ” (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 2014).

Anti-Black racism and discrimination

Histories of enslavement and ongoing gender and race-based discrimination and misogynoir impact Black women in many ways. The unemployment rate for Black women is roughly twice that of non-racialized women. Black women generally face “greater barriers to getting well-paid jobs in particular”, compared to other racialized women and white women. Black women are overrepresented in precarious and part-time employment and are “disproportionately entrenched in a cycle of poverty and marginalization.” Many of these issues are rooted in barriers Black women experience from a young age, including discrimination in the education system, job market, and housing (Katshunga et al.).

“Black women are less likely to have a bachelor’s degree or higher when compared to other women in Canada. Working-age Black women are also less likely to be employed compared to other women, Black men, and other men in Canada. When comparing median annual income across major cities in Canada … Black women have lower median annual income when compared to other women, Black men, and other men in Canada” (Black Business and Professional Association, 2021).

Newcomer and immigrant women

When it comes to finding work, newcomer and immigrant women face barriers including language and limited social networks to support their search.

Employers often don’t recognize educational and professional qualifications from outside Canada, meaning that newcomer women cannot always access higher paying jobs and may have to take jobs for which they’re overqualified. “In 2011, 48.6% of working immigrant women with a bachelor’s level education or higher were employed in positions that do not typically require a degree. In contrast, this was the case for 32.8% of Canadian-born women” (Hudon, Statistics Canada, 2015).

The temporary foreign worker program can leave many women who come to Canada to work in service, retail, and caregiving sectors vulnerable to workplace discrimination, unsafety, and abuse. People who come to Canada through these programs have lesser protections than workers with full status (White et al., 2016). In general, where their immigration status is precarious, newcomer women cannot easily seek out better working conditions like higher pay, stable schedules, and benefits (Dobrowolsky et al.).

Racism and income inequality

Rising income inequality continues to be a concern in Canada. It means that the gap between the highest and lowest income earners is widening.

In 2016, the top one per cent of Canada’s population owned a quarter of the country’s wealth — an amount greater than the total wealth held by the bottom 70% of the population or more than 24.5 million people (Lambert and McInturff, 2016). In Canada, the data on income inequality point to a pattern of racialized economic inequality, and “racialized women face greater barriers to work, and well-paid work, than racialized men, non-racialized women and non-racialized men”. In 2016, the racialized population had an unemployment rate of 9.2% compared to the non-racialized rate of 7.3%, and racialized women had the highest unemployment rate at 9.6% (Block et al., 2019).

Ableism and barriers to access

“In Canada, poverty and disability are largely synonymous: poverty can lead to disability and disability can lead to poverty … Compared to men with disabilities, women with disabilities face additional economic disadvantage. Historically, women with disabilities have experienced lower rates of participation in the labor force, less access to income support programs and higher rates of poverty” (Council of Canadians with Disabilities). 1 in 5 people in Canada aged 25 to 64 have at least one disability, and women are more likely to have a disability than men (Wall, Statistics Canada, 2017).

“Women with disabilities face obstacles and prejudices in various aspects of daily life such as education, employment and housing. Discrimination experienced by women with disabilities is complex since it is the result of the intersection of multiple oppressions related to disability, gender, sexual orientation, level of urbanization, ethnicity and culture, age, economic circumstances and employment status” (Disabled Women’s Network of Canada, 2014).

Homophobia and transphobia

An overview of available research and literature notes that “manifestations of poverty appeared to be gendered in that they appeared to disproportionately affect women, along with trans and gender diverse populations.” Inequities leading to higher poverty for 2SLGBTQI+ populations occur at “several intersections across the life course” and are impacted by a “race and newcomer status, and Indigeneity” (Kia et al., 2021).

2SLGBTQ+ community members face high levels of discrimination, harassment, and hostility when it comes to hiring processes and workplace policy and practices. This limits their ability to progress economically (Catalyst, 2021).

Senior women and age discrimination

“Poverty rates among the elderly tend to be highest among women, particularly widows over the age of 75. This is largely due to pension allowances that have traditionally been linked to employment history” (Conference Board of Canada).

Women’s lifetime earning potential is more likely than men’s to be limited by interruptions for unpaid child or elder-care. Their ability to earn and save for retirement is also influenced by the gender pay gap. Women who have sacrificed professional and financial opportunities for family care may become particularly vulnerable to poverty if they become divorced or widowed later in life.

Senior women may also face gendered ageism, a term that covers the intersectionality of age and gender bias. It can impact every career stage, starting from hiring (Catalyst, 2019). It extends to treatment and opportunities at work and adds to women’s difficulties in entering or re-entering the workforce (Beaton, 2018).

There are some key factors.

Higher Burden of Unpaid Work

More of women’s time is taken up with unpaid work than men. Women spend an average of 3.6 hours or 15% of their day on unpaid domestic and care work compared to the average of 2.4 hours or 10% of the day that men that spend on unpaid work (Statistics Canada, 2019). As a result, many women effectively perform a “second shift” of unpaid work on top of their paid work, and this impacts their earning potential (Moyser and Burlock, Statistics Canada, 2018).

Women are more likely than men to balance the challenges of their paid and unpaid care work by reducing paid work hours or stopping paid work temporarily. Women’s domestic responsibilities also make it harder for them to pursue career advancement opportunities such as returning to school or skills training courses (Fox and Moyser, Statistics Canada, 2018).

In order to accommodate domestic responsibilities, many women work in part-time, seasonal, contract, temporary, or otherwise precarious jobs. Three-quarters (75.8 per cent) of those working part-time in Canada were women in 2015, and one-quarter of women working part-time said the reason was caring for children, compared to 3.3 per cent of men (Moyser, Statistics Canada, 2018).

Precarious work scenarios – jobs that are unstable, lack predictable income, pay for sick days, benefits and pensions – are on the rise and 60 per cent of precariously employed professionals are women (Hennessy and Tranjan, 2018). More than half (55 per cent) of minimum-wage workers were women in 2018 (Morissette and Dionne-Simard, Statistics Canada, 2018).

Lack of affordable, quality childcare

Canada’s current lack of affordable childcare — and lack of workplace supports such as flex-time and caregiver leave — often forces women into jobs that severely limit their earning power.

Childcare advocates and researchers caution that, over the past decade, for-profit childcare has been expanding at a greater rate than non-profit early learning and childcare services and programs, increasing from 20 per cent in 2004 to 30 per cent in 2016. But affordable childcare is essential for women to be able to participate in the labour force (Canadian Women’s Foundation et al., 2020).

Women who interrupt their careers to have or care for children can come at significant cost to their income. In 2016, women aged 25 to 38 saw their earnings drop by 4 per cent in the 5 years after having a child (Agopsowicz, RBC Economics Research). Mothers with at least one child under age 18 earned 85 cents for every $1 earned by fathers, while women without children earned 90 cents for every dollar earned by men without children, based on 2015 data (Moyser, Statistics Canada, 2017).

Gender pay gap

According to Statistics Canada (2022), as of 2021, the gender pay gap for full-time and part-time employees is 0.89, which means women make 89 cents of every dollar men make. The gender pay gap for full-time employees is 0.90, which means women make 90 cents of every dollar men make. The gender pay gap is worse for those who face multiple barriers, including racialized women, Indigenous women, and women with disabilities. Though it differs by age group, the gap starts from a young age and carries into the senior years (Moyser, Statistics Canada, 2019).

Read more about the gender pay gap in Canada.

There’s plenty of evidence showing that women living with abuse or violence may stay because there’s a good chance that leaving will plunge themselves and their children into poverty (Gurr et al., Public Health Agency of Canada, 2008).

Women living on low incomes also face higher barriers to getting help with abuse or violence. For example, transportation to counselling or shelter services may be difficult for those who do not have a car or access to public transit. “The combined effects of poverty and violence create a formidable barrier to women’s equality, well-being and full participation in society. Both reflect unequal relationships of power which result in the systemic discrimination of women” (Gurr et al., Public Health Agency of Canada, 2008).

Another reason to end gendered poverty is because it also helps break intergenerational cycles of poverty. When children are poor, it’s often because their mother is poor, and those who grow up in poverty “are more likely to remain in poverty as they age” (Government of Canada, 2018).

In 2019, 1.3 million children or 17.7% of children in Canada were living below the Census Family Low Income Tax Measure After Tax. The child poverty rate was highest in Nunavut at 34.4% (Campaign 2000, 2021).

Growing up in poverty or low-income may mean that children are living in unstable or unhealthy housing, without access to basic needs like healthy food and warm clothing. Poverty is a key social determinant of health that impacts children’s physical, mental, and educational well-being. It is associated with greater barriers to accessing health services, and increased risk of mortality, chronic conditions like asthma and obesity, as well as mental health issues, and lower educational attainment (Robinson, 2019; Gupta et al., 2007).

Children living in poverty face greater barriers when it comes to early childhood development and education. Families living on a low income or in poverty may have no access to quality childcare that can lay a strong foundation for starting school and enable parents to work. Socio-economic factors play a big role in children’s access to supports like tutoring services and extra-curricular activities. “The educational gap widens with unequal access to the best schools and with the separation of ‘good’ students from ‘bad’ students through academic streaming.” Unequal access to educational opportunities and advantages over generations contributes to the cycle of poverty (Rogova et al., 2016).

Overall, ensuring women’s economic well-being benefits the whole economy. By addressing gendered inequities, “Canada could add $150 billion in incremental GDP in 2026 or see a 0.6 percent increase of annual GDP growth. That’s 6 percent higher than business-as-usual GDP growth forecasts over the next decade” (Devillard et al., McKinsey & Company, 2017).

Last Update: April 6, 2022

Data Snapshot

10%
of women in Canada live on low incomes

23%
of women with disabilities live on low incomes

28%
of women-led households in Canada are in core housing need

17.7%
of children in Canada live below the Census Family Low Income Tax Measure After Tax

Sign Up for Email Updates

Learn more