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Canada’s forgotten poor: How to lift single persons out of deep poverty

September 15, 2020 Print

Montreal — Rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic, the income support programs of Canadian governments are being redesigned to better support people whose earnings have fallen and to avoid a sharp increase in the number of those living in poverty. Working-age single persons without dependants are disproportionately represented among the ranks of the poor, and often struggle to meet their basic needs on incomes far below the poverty line. These individuals are Canada’s “forgotten poor” because they are often left out of poverty reduction plans that focus on seniors or families with children. A new IRPP report analyses the consequences of single persons living in deep poverty and offers recommendations from three social policy experts on how to help single persons get back on track.

Using data from 69,000 singles receiving social assistance in Toronto, researchers Dean Herd, Yuna Kim, and Christine Carrasco from the City of Toronto highlight the characteristics, complex needs, and barriers single people living in poverty face in moving off assistance and into employment. Although the focus is Toronto, these findings provide valuable information to policy-makers across Canada, as the increasing number of singles on social assistance and the limited financial support available to them are nation-wide concerns.

Contrary to common belief, singles on social assistance are not just a group of young men. For instance, 38 percent are women, 38 percent are 45 years of age or above, and 20 percent are men under the age of 30. Education levels also vary greatly: while about one third have not completed high school, a similar proportion have post-secondary credentials of some kind.

And the immigration background of those on assistance is not uniform either, with naturalized Canadian citizens and permanent residents representing 43 percent of the singles caseload — almost the same proportion as those born in the country, and refugees and refugee claimants representing the other 14 percent of the singles caseload.

The research highlights a key issue: income support for people living in poverty, like social assistance, tax credits, and supplementary benefits, is much less generous for singles than for families with children. Unlike the many lone parents who have been helped to move out of poverty through targeted programs and child benefits, singles have had minimal access to income supports beyond modest social assistance payments.

In response to the report’s findings, three social policy experts call for major reforms to lift Canada’s forgotten poor out of deep poverty. Sherri Torjman, social policy consultant and policy associate with Maytree, discusses options for social safety net reform that include redesigning Employment Insurance or the Canada Workers Benefit (a refundable tax-credit for low-income individuals). Professor Alain Noël, Université de Montréal, argues, among other things, for increasing social assistance benefits and providing more supportive employment and social services to those facing multiple and complex challenges. Professor Ron Kneebone, University of Calgary, encourages annual cost-of-living adjustments for those on social assistance to be made on the basis of changes in rental costs, with housing being the most significant affordability challenge for those living in deep poverty.

In redesigning income support programs for the COVID-19 pandemic and afterwards, policy-makers have a real opportunity to address the problem of deep poverty among singles and ensure some of Canada’s most vulnerable are forgotten no more.

Canada’s Forgotten Poor? Putting Singles Living in Deep Poverty on the Policy Radar by Dean Herd, Yuna Kim, and Christine Carrasco can be downloaded from the Institute’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

Canada’s Forgotten Poor? Putting Singles Living in Deep Poverty on the Policy Radar

Canada’s Forgotten Poor? Putting Singles Living in Deep Poverty on the Policy Radar

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Media Contact

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