The Facts about Women and Poverty in Canada

More than 1.5 million women in Canada live in poverty. Women who face multiple barriers are at higher risk of poverty, such as Indigenous women, racialized women, those who are 2SLGBTQI+, newcomer women, and women living with disabilities.

Women’s risk of poverty is related to the fact that they face many systemic barriers to good employment and are over-represented in low wage, precarious work.

We discuss how women in the workforce have been impacted by COVID-19 on our “Alright, Now What?” podcast. Listen on Spotify or here.

Why is women’s poverty so urgent?

  • Economic stability is important to women’s health and well-being, safety, quality of life, and human rights.
  • Removing barriers to 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.
  • 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.
  • Levelling the economic playing field is smart. Canada could add $150 billion to its GDP by 2026 by advancing gender equality and boosting women’s workforce participation.

Frequently Asked Questions about Women and Poverty in Canada

In 2019, the federal government adopted the Poverty Reduction Act, officially setting the Market Basket Measure (MBM) as the official poverty line. The government has also released Opportunity for All – Canada’s first Federal Poverty Reduction Strategy, which sets poverty-reduction goals based on the MBM.

Based on the MBM, 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 MBM varies across Canada, based on the cost of living. For example, the 2018 MBM poverty threshold for a family of four ranged from $37,397 in rural Quebec to $48,677 in Vancouver, BC. More than 1.5 million women in Canada were living under the poverty line as of 2018.

The Market Basket Measure has limitations. It does not include key expenses such as day care or prescription medications, and it may underestimate housing costs. It is not applicable to territories and First Nation reserves, which means it leaves out regions that have a high prevalence of poverty and low income.

Statistics Canada also reports on the proportion of people living on low income using the Low Income Measure (LIM). Based on this measure, “individuals live in low income if their household after-tax income falls below half of the median after-tax income, adjusting for household size.”

Aside from Canada’s official poverty line and low-income measures, other indicators show that a significant number of Canadians have difficulty making ends meet.

The 2019 Canadian Financial Capability Survey revealed that about one third of Canadians (36 per cent) are struggling to manage their day-to-day finances or pay their bills. For example, nearly 1 in 10 Canadians (8 per cent) say they are falling behind on bill payments and other financial commitments. This survey indicated that women are less confident than men that they would be able to manage an unexpected expense of $2,000.

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 thresholds. The survey suggests 16 per cent of Canadians are “struggling” economically, meaning 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. Sixty per cent of those in the “struggling” category are women, while 40 per cent are men.

Experiences of poverty and low income depend on the intersecting barriers and forms of discrimination people face.

While all women encounter gender discrimination that hinders their professional and earning potential, they experience different barriers related to factors such as race, citizenship status, sexuality, gender identity, ability, health status and/or age.

Based on the 2016 Census, the prevalence of low income among the following groups of women is particularly high:

There are also indicators that women’s access to basic necessities like food and housing varies based on their social location, which is influenced by gender, race, socioeconomic status, age, ability, religion, sexual orientation and geographic location. For example, 25.1 per cent of households led by single mothers with children experience moderate or severe food insecurity.

Certain populations in Canada face higher rates of core housing need, meaning that their households don’t meet standards of adequacy, affordability, suitability, and that the household would have to spend more than 30 per cent of its income to rent alternative housing that does meet the standards. Groups with relatively high rates of core housing need are:

  • Inuit women: 39.4 per cent
  • First Nations women: 24.5 per cent
  • West Asian women (Afghan, Iranian, for example): 31.2 per cent
  • Korean women: 27.6 per cent
  • Recent immigrant women: 28.4 per cent
  • Black women: 22.4 per cent
  • Arab women: 25.7 per cent

The number of women, girls and gender-diverse people who are homeless in Canada is drastically underestimated, reports The State of Women’s Housing Need and Homelessness in Canada. “While we often imagine homelessness as the person asking for change on the street corner, women’s homelessness is often hidden behind closed doors. It includes couch surfing with friends, trading sex for housing, or living in a tiny, overcrowded apartment,” says the report. When such experiences of homelessness go unrecognized and uncounted, policies and programming fail to address women’s specific needs.

Some of the contributing factors to homelessness among women and gender-diverse people include a lack of safe and affordable housing, and a lack of housing and supports that are 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.

There are also gaps between the services and policies of the homelessness sector and the gender-based violence sector, which means that people can fall through the cracks. 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.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation’s Until All of Us Have Made It report highlights how gender-based inequalities play out for diverse segments of the population. The report is based on an opinion survey the Foundation commissioned in early 2020. It demonstrates how women’s experiences and outcomes in employment, education, health differ vary widely when related to factors like race, citizenship status, and ability.

The sections below provide more background on some of the intersecting barriers faced by women and gender-diverse people.

Colonial legacy and anti-Indigenous racism

Due to the legacy of 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.

“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,” says a report by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, which examined factors contributing to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Anti-Black racism and discrimination

The legacy of slavery and ongoing gender and race-based discrimination impact Black women in many ways. The unemployment rate for Black women is roughly twice that of non-racialized women, says the Black Women in Canada report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. 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.

Newcomer and immigrant women

When it comes to finding work, newcomer and immigrant women may 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.”

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.

In general, where their immigration status is precarious, newcomer women cannot easily seek out better working conditions like higher pay, stable schedules, and benefits.

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 per cent of the population (more than 24.5 million people).

In Canada, the data on income inequality “point to an unequivocal pattern of racialized economic inequality” says Canada’s Colour Coded Income Inequality report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Ableism and barriers to access

Women living with disabilities encounter many barriers to both education and employment. They are underrepresented in Canada’s work force, have lesser access to adequate employment, and are more at risk of living in poverty.

Barriers include ableism, which leads to structural obstacles (such as lack of assistive technology, or wheelchair-accessible office space) that limit access to the workforce. Employers may lack knowledge about disability issues, including the duty to accommodate, and how to accommodate.

Homophobia and transphobia

Though there remains a lack of data specific to poverty among those who identify as women in 2SLGBTQ+ communities, there is a high level of poverty and marginalization related to homophobia and transphobia. For example, “one in four queer or trans youth in BC are forced out of their homes because of family conflict. Within this group, people of colour or Indigenous people fare worse,” says the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition. “Among homeless youth in BC, 1 in 3 females and 1 in 10 males self-identify as queer, trans or questioning.” s

2SLGBTQ+ community members may also experience discrimination and/or harassment when it comes to hiring processes and workplace culture. This limits people’s ability to progress economically.

The Canadian Coalition Against LGBTQ Poverty is working to address gaps in knowledge about poverty in this community, and has submitted recommendations on how Canada’s poverty strategy can address the issue.

Senior women and age discrimination

Many factors contribute to high poverty rates among senior and elderly women. 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 be prevented from working due to age-related health conditions or disabilities. They may also face ageism in the job market, particularly when it comes to perceptions of digital competency.

There are a few key factors:

Higher Burden of Unpaid Work

On average, women spend 50% more time on unpaid work ­– including chores, household shopping, childcare and eldercare – than men, according to a 2017 Statistics Canada report. Though men’s participation in unpaid work has increased, they continue to spend more time on paid work than women. 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.

Women are more likely than men to balance the challenges of their paid and their 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.

In order to accommodate domestic responsibilities, many women work in part-time, seasonal, contract, or 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.
  • 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.
  • More than half (55 per cent) of minimum-wage workers were women in 2018.

Lack of affordable, quality childcare

Canada’s 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.

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.

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, in 2015, according to Statistics Canada.

Is there a gender pay gap in Canada?

  • Yes, and the gender pay gap diminishes the earning power of all working women in Canada.
  • On average, women earned 87 cents for every dollar that men earned, or $4.13 less per hour, in 2018. The gender pay gap widens for women who face multiple barriers and forms of discrimination, including women who are Indigenous, Black, racialized, newcomers, or living with a disability.
  • There are many reasons the gender wage gap continues to exist. For more information, see The Gender Pay Gap in Canada.
A key reason to focus on women’s economic independence is because it’s linked to their safety.

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.

Women who are living on a low income may 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,” says Breaking the Links between Poverty and ViolenceAgainst Women: A Resource Guide. “Both reflect unequal relationships of power which result in the systemic discrimination of women.”

Another key reason to end gendered poverty is because it also helps children and breaks inter-generational 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”. The number of lone-parent families is on the rise and 81.3 per cent of all lone-parent families are headed by women. About one in four (26 per cent) of women-led lone-parent families were living below the poverty line in 2018.

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. Children living in poverty face greater barriers when it comes to early childhood development and education. Given that there is no universal childcare system in Canada, 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.

Although Canada’s public education system is well ranked among OECD countries, 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.

  • The Canadian Women’s Foundation supports women’s journeys out of poverty by investing in community programs that offer training in skilled trades and technology, launching a small business, or opportunities to gain work experience.
  • Through these women-centred programs, women learn to identify their strengths and build upon them. This positive, ‘asset-based’ approach helps women build confidence in their ability to become financially independent.
  • Each woman has access to support services that maximize her chances of success, such as emergency loans, childcare subsidies or services, as well as assistance with finding employment, financial literacy, and building a strong social network.
  • Through this approach, we have helped women across Canada to begin their journeys out of poverty. Along the way, these women have created a more secure future for herself and her children and contributed to Canada’s economy.
  • As a partner in the Federal Government’s Investment Readiness Program, the Foundation distributes funding to women’s organizations to support the development of social purpose enterprises. These are businesses with a social purpose, whose profits are reinvested into the organization.

Advocacy and Systems Change

The Foundation also works to remove the systemic economic barriers women face by advocating policy change in a variety of areas:

  • We endorsed Childcare Now’s Affordable Childcare for All Plan, a roadmap for a universal, affordable, quality childcare system in Canada.
  • We collaborate with the Ontario Equal Pay Coalition to address the gender pay gap and pay equity.
  • We submit annual recommendations to the government in advance of the federal budget, urging the government to apply a gender and intersectional lens to economic planning.
  • We have called on the federal government to acknowledge the gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and to build gender equality into the recovery. The Foundation’s Resetting Normal report series offers recommendations to policy-makers on how to rebuild, starting with a new funding model that will strengthen the women’s sector.

This fact sheet was last updated in January 2021.

Pin iconThe Facts

30% of single mothers are raising their children in poverty

34% of First Nations women and girls live in poverty

21% of visible minority women and girls live in poverty

23% of women with disabilities live in poverty

16% of senior women live in poverty. Source: Statistics Canada.

What is the Foundation doing about women and poverty?

We fund programs designed to help women move out of poverty, through training in:

  • Skilled trades
  • How to start a business
  • Working in a social purpose enterprise

Learn more: Out of poverty

Your monthly donation can help a woman move herself and her children out of poverty.

Now I’m able to pay my bills, buy food, and take care of myself.