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Bare-bones benefits a poverty trap for single adults on social assistance

December 2, 2020 Print

Montreal — Most single working-age adults on social assistance are living in deep poverty due to provincial governments’ efforts to curb welfare dependency and maintain work incentives. New research from the Institute for Research on Public Policy calls on the provinces to increase singles benefits to give them the means to improve their future.

In this study, author Nick Falvo looks at long-term trends in social assistance caseloads and the adequacy of welfare incomes across provinces. He finds that poverty reduction measures implemented in recent decades have succeeded in boosting the incomes of low-income families with children. But little has been done to improve the lives of single adults on social assistance.

Just under half of the nearly 2 million Canadians living in deep poverty are singles. The  average income of a single adult on social assistance is less than $10,000 per year — about 45 per cent below the poverty line in most provinces, and less than half the average full-time minimum wage earnings.

Falvo points out that provinces have long been reluctant to increase the bare-bones benefits provided to singles for fear of encouraging their reliance on social assistance and making paid work less attractive. He analyses the many factors — such as eligibility rules, benefit levels, job and earnings prospects — that affect the number of singles on social assistance over time and finds that the generosity of benefits plays only a modest role.

He concludes that, “provinces have ample room to increase singles’ benefits without seeing a dramatic rise in social assistance take-up or dampening work incentives. Such a move would not only ensure these individuals are better able to meet their basic daily needs, it would also help counter the debilitating effects of living in deep poverty.”

Deep poverty takes a toll on the health and ability of singles to participate more fully in the labour market and in society. Food insecurity and homelessness are major obstacles for people who want to get off social assistance.

“When you’re worried about finding your next meal and keeping a roof over your head, you’re less likely to have the time or energy needed to retrain or look for a job,” says Falvo.

As a first step, Falvo calls on provincial policy-makers to increase social assistance benefits for singles, directing increases mainly to those in regions with a high cost of living. He also recommends that singles on social assistance be given priority access to federal-provincial housing benefits as access to shelter is their greatest source of insecurity.


Lifting Singles Out of Deep Poverty: The Case for Increasing Social Assistance Benefits, by Nick Falvo, can be downloaded from the IRPP’s website (irpp.org).

The Institute for Research on Public Policy is an independent, national, bilingual, not-for-profit organization based in Montreal. To receive updates from the IRPP, please subscribe to our e‑mail list.

Media contact: Cléa Desjardins, tel. 514-245-2139 cdesjardins@nullirpp.org

Lifting Singles Out of Deep Poverty: The Case for Increasing Social Assistance Benefits

Lifting Singles Out of Deep Poverty: The Case for Increasing Social Assistance Benefits

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Media Contact

Cléa Desjardins
Communications Director
Tel. 514-245-2139 • cdesjardins@irpp.org