In recent years, there have been increased policy efforts to counteract poverty in Canada, most notably ,the 2018 release of the Poverty Reduction Strategy and the establishment of an official poverty line – both firsts in Canada. An update, released in February 2020, showed signs of significant progress as the official headline touted by the government was that, “Over 1 million Canadians have been lifted out of poverty since 2015”.
However, poverty still exists in the lowest economic income quintiles in Canada. Given how measures of equality tend to overemphasize the middle and upper economic quintiles, this poverty is often understated. Looking at single mothers, this article will first examine the history of social policy developments and question if any significant changes have been made. Secondly, the article will look at the current lived experiences of single mothers in Canada to assess the impact of policy changes.
A Brief History of Poverty Politics in Canada: Mothering as Deserving, Undeserving, and Back to Deserving Again
In the mid- to late-1800s the primary mode of managing poverty within Canada was through Poor Houses—structures used to house those experiencing deep poverty. Poor Houses were ‘semi-voluntary institutions’ in the sense that those without anywhere else to turn could seek access. Treatment of those staying within poor houses was often harsh. Single mothers were regularly separated from their children under the belief that the children could be reformed through contact with better (wealthier) families.
Shifting away from a Poor House model, during the postwar era at the height of the Keynesian welfare state, the Canadian federal government took the lead in providing social benefits. In 1966 the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP) was introduced. With the CAP, the federal government shared the cost of social assistance and welfare programs with the provinces on a 50/50 basis. Eligible cost sharing initiatives had to abide by a ‘needs test’, where provinces had to ensure that those receiving benefits were deserving on a financial basis.
At this time, single mothers were considered to be one of the populations most deserving of welfare. Both a strong belief that children should not be separated from their mothers to the extent that would allow for full-time employment and the existence of a fairly generous welfare state contributed to the development of a Mothers Allowance. Yet, even during this period, some mothers were viewed as more deserving than others on the basis of race, Indigeneity, class, and whether they were widowed or abandoned.
The shift away from the Keynesian welfare state and CAP towards neoliberal governance and the Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST) model in the 1980s and 1990s, resulted in decreased federal spending and increased provincial authority. This shift in federal-provincial relations had a major impact on social assistance programs. With greater fiscal responsibility, provinces imposed stricter eligibility criteria for social programs.
These changes moved single mothers toward the category of undeserving poor. Where in the past single mothers were considered to be mothers first and workers second, mothering responsibilities were invisible in the neoliberal era. All citizens came to be recognized as “genderless and self-sufficient market actors.”
The transition from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau brought with it yet another shift. Greater federal leadership in social policies returned once again. The release of the Poverty Reduction Strategy, which is closely aligned with the National Housing Strategy and Canada Child Benefit (both of which are in part guided by gender-based analysis), signals a potential change in the status of single mothers in terms of the deserving/undeserving divide. To assess this though, it is necessary to look closely at how the policies impact single mothers.
Mothering in Poverty Today: Balancing Budgets, Managing Hardships
All family types can be at risk for experiencing poverty, yet lone mother families experience poverty at a much higher rate (See Figure 1). Like governments, single mothers are expected to carefully balance their budgets. Personal stake in this task, however, is much higher for mothers than it is for governments. Whereas a government can look weak on fiscal policy with an unbalanced budget in normal times, an unbalanced budget is largely excusable in harder times. For mothers, an unbalanced budget, even in the toughest of times, can be viewed as inexcusable and irresponsible to the public (especially if the mother is not white, as Rebecca Wallace makes clear). An unbalanced budget for a mother in poverty can result in going without food, medication, and potentially even housing. While the Canadian government is promoting financial literacy, women in poverty typically just need more money to be able to balance their budgets. The Poverty Reduction Strategy does this in theory, but it still leaves single mothers in difficult financial circumstances.
The Canada Child Benefit component of the Poverty Reduction Strategy has the potential to be of great significance to single mothers. Nonetheless, while the Canada Child Benefit has been applauded as a necessary step in the right direction, and the rate of child poverty (for children below the age of six) has decreased from 26.4% in 2000 to 19.6% in 2017, “the rate of child and family poverty continues to be unacceptably high.”
Certain groups continue to experience larger degrees of poverty and economic exclusion—namely racialized groups, new immigrants and women. At the same time, the structural barriers experienced by such marginalized groups can block access to the Canada Child Benefit. In response to reports of Indigenous and at-risk families experiencing greater difficulty in accessing the benefit the federal government implemented a simplified application in 2019. However, data showing that this simplified application is allowing the benefit to reach all of those in need has not yet been produced.
Overall, neither welfare nor paid work can guarantee an exit from poverty for single mothers. Even with increased federal benefits for those who do have access to the Canada Child Benefit, total welfare income for single parents with one child remains below the Market Basket Measure (MBM) threshold—the now official poverty measure—in Canada’s major cities (See Figure 2). Additionally, the number of individuals considered to be part of the ‘working poor’ is increasing across Canada, with an estimated 47% of individuals experiencing poverty being employed.
The level and degree of poverty increases the importance of another aspect of the Poverty Reduction Strategy for single mothers: The National Housing Strategy. The strategy dedicates a minimum 25 percent of funds for projects aimed at assisting women and their families. Such investment is necessary, as 55 percent of households with core housing needs are female led and an increasing number of single mother families are experiencing homelessness. However, there is a possibility that benefits will not reach some of those most in need.
The screening process used to assess if someone qualifies for a Housing First program can at times be intrusive and require the individual(s) in need to trust the interviewer with the personal details of their lives. Research has shown that lone mothers, especially racialized lone mothers, actively avoid their welfare workers due to the degrading comments made towards them. Additionally, some mothers fear that if they are open about their lives, Child Welfare Services will intervene to remove children from their care, as a lack of resources is too often perceived as a lack of responsibility and insufficiently caring about their children.
Again, racialized and Indigenous single mothers are more insecure. The options continue to be either invisibility or stigmatization. Without a greater sense of trust, coupled with a reduction of racial bias, the actual vulnerability of some lone mothers will remain hidden from case workers and access to needed assistance will remain out of reach.
Even when initiatives successfully house individuals and families, the cost of rent can reinforce poverty; one can have shelter but still not be able to obtain other basic necessities. In fact, a problem with the claimed decrease in poverty announced by the federal government in February 2020 is that the MBM threshold uses 2008 housing costs. With much higher housing costs now, the actual level of poverty continues to be slightly higher than the reported rate.
Although the current federal government is seemingly more interested in reducing poverty than previous governments, lone mothers continue to be treated as undeserving of appropriate benefits. Lone mothers are still expected to balance budgets and manage hardships even though their incomes continue to be insufficient. At the same time, single mothers continue to be heavily monitored and stigmatized by those in positions of relative power at the provincial level—similar to the introduction of neoliberal tendencies alongside the CHST. Also, if lone mothers are unable to meet middle class standards of mothering without middle class incomes, mothers risk being separated from their children—similar to practices that existed in the time of Poor Houses. Ultimately, there remains a degree of continuity with previous policies rather than change.
What needs to happen to eliminate poverty amongst single mothers?
Poverty has been declining in Canada, but it continues to be a major issue for single mothers. To eliminate poverty for single mothers there is a need to shift both social attitudes and fiscal policies. In some respects, a shift in fiscal policies at the federal level can be used to facilitate a shift in social attitudes. Living wages and a universal basic income program are two alternatives to minimum wages and welfare that can assist individuals (especially women) in exiting poverty. These options are not inherently means-tested or stigmatizing and do not require an opt-in process as rigorous as a program such as the Canada Child Benefit.
The effect of these policies could result in a change in social attitudes. With universal benefits accessible to all, there is less need for welfare officers to heavily monitor those receiving benefits. This approach may not ultimately address the racial bias that is seemingly ingrained into the existing systems. Rather than a solve all solution, it can rather be a starting point.
Greater investment in social housing is also needed. The National Housing Strategy is a good first step, but does not meet the needs of individuals who are being priced out of their neighborhoods. There needs to be urgency in making such changes not only for the mothers experiencing the high stress of mothering in poverty but also for the children they are raising. Although it is unclear if there is an intergenerational trend in accessing welfare benefits, the data points to a trend in social mobility. Growing up in a low-income household is associated with lower family incomes as adults. Without alleviating lone mother poverty, there is a higher likelihood that the children who come from these homes will also grow up to experience poverty.