Poverty in Canada Has a Woman’s Face

woman misery

FOUR YEARS AGO I ATTENDED AN INTERNATIONAL poverty forum with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.  We had been cooperating on an initiative for helping African girls to stay in school and he was a forceful proponent for equal opportunities in that continent for men and women.

At one point he was asked what would be the one thing that he could do, if he had it in his power, to get rid of African poverty.  It was a big question, but his answer was bigger: “Invest in the women of every African country.”  The silence following that response was deafening because everyone in that room was seasoned in international development and Blair’s solution was almost breathtaking in its simplicity and scope.

It’s easy to talk about poverty among women on other continents – the stats confront of us everyday and are daunting.  When we close our eyes and think about the desperately poor it is inevitable that the image of a woman and her child come to mind.

What image do we envision when we think of the increasing poverty problem in Canada?  I asked four people that question yesterday and nothing particular came to mind.  Somehow we have delinked low-income existences with women and as a result Canadian poverty remains somewhat ethereal to us all.  Consider some of these stats:

  • With the recent economic crisis, some 4.8 millions Canadians are poor.  Of that number
  • 36% of Aboriginal women are mired in poverty
  • 35% of visible minority women are poor
  • 26% of the poor are women with disabilities
  • 21% are single parent mothers (7% of single parent fathers are poor)
  • Of senior single women 14% have fallen into poverty

Canada’s poverty rate ranks us 20th out of 31 OECD countries.  When you consider the data on women in poverty the numbers are even worse.  We continue to hear how Canada came out of the economic downturn better off that other developed nations, but when seen through the lens of women in challenging situations, that’s a bit difficult to accept.  Some intrepid women economists continually remind world leaders that economic inequality between men and women reached it highest points in 1929 and 2007, directly preceding the two worst financial meltdowns in the past 100 years.  When we increasingly get equality wrong, it’s inevitable that we’ll be in a world of hurt as a nation.

Following the London Food Bank’s announcement last week that it was researching closing its doors in order to find better solutions within neighbourhoods where families could get better care, there were numerous responses – most, I’m happy to say, were highly positive.  The fiercest critic was a London woman who has had a good life and who feels it shouldn’t be too much to ask for people to travel across town to the food bank.  She gracefully listened to some key points in return.

  • 80% of all lone parent families are headed by women (over 1 millions families)
  • Single moms have a net worth of roughly $17,000, while for single dads it’s around $80,000
  • The vast majority of children living in poverty are cared for by their mother, so if it’s true that kids who are poor suffer from higher rates of asthma, diabetes, mental health issues, and even heart disease, then it stands to reason that the chief burden bearer of all these ills is the mother.  The load is staggering.
  • Women who leave a partner to raise children on their own are more than five times likely to live in poverty than if they had stayed with that partner
  • 70% of part-time workers and 66% of minimum wager earners are women
  • Women who were in similar job situations receive only 71% of what a man makes
  • Women spend almost twice as much time doing unpaid work as men

Look, I’m not trying to pile it on here, but numbers like these are compelling enough to cause us to make some economic changes.  That’s what happened to this woman I was speaking with.  When I got to the part about a single mom’s net worth being only $17,000, she broke down, telling me that her daughter was in just such a predicament.  Three hours later the same woman knocked at our front door, handed me a box of baby formula, and signed a generous cheque to the food bank. 

What changed her mind?  Not my words, for sure.  It was just the sheer numbers, the weight of acquired evidence, that reminded her that millions of women like her actually weren’t really like her at all.  They had little opportunity, precious few resources, limitations on access, and, ironically, little time to pass judgments on others.  They are just trying to survive.

When these women approach us at the food bank, telling us of the massive challenges they face each day, are we destined to just sit there, nod, and remind them that they can always come to us for assistance?  Given the weight of such evidence, is it not our responsibility to permit them to face challenges in their own neighbourhoods, where their children play and go to school, and a broader range of supports are available?

The London Food Bank’s announcement of last week is little less than taking the war on women’s poverty seriously, even calling for community change.  Our city can no longer accept families facing a system-wide poverty when better ways can be researched, discovered, and enabled.

Tony Blair’s response that day should leave us just as speechless.  If we’re serious about poverty, then we’d be better prepare ourselves to fight for a woman’s right to a better world.  They are already in the trenches and we must meet them where they live.