A report on women and poverty released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives on Wednesday declaims: "Women remain among the poorest of the poor."
Is this news? Who might have supposed that only men and children rank among the poorest of the poor in Canada?
Upon reflection, Monica Townson, a feminist economist who wrote the report on poverty and women for the left-wing Ottawa think tank, would surely agree that the poorest of the poor in Canada always has, and always will, include some women. Her more substantive claim is that the proportion of impoverished Canadian women is increasing.
"Over the past two decades," she writes, "the percentage of women living in poverty has been climbing steadily. As Canada enters the 21st century, almost 19 per cent of adult women are poor – the highest rate of women's poverty in two decades."
Unlike the United States and most other countries, Canada has never established an official measure of poverty. Instead, Townson has based her claims about rising poverty among Canadian women on Statistics Canada's low-income cutoffs, despite acknowledging in her report that StatsCan, "has always emphasized that, while the low-income cutoffs are commonly referred to as poverty lines, 'they have no officially recognized status, nor does Statistics Canada promote their use as poverty lines.'"
Regardless, like Townson, most politicians, most government officials, most journalists and many agencies, including the National Council of Welfare, routinely refer to the low-income cutoffs as a measure of poverty. Yet, that's clearly an error: The low-income cutoffs are, as the name plainly implies, a measure of relatively low-incomes, not poverty.
Kari Norman has well explained the difference between a low-income measure and a poverty measure in Perceptions of Poverty: Correcting Misconceptions about the Low-Income Cutoff, a report released by the C. D. Howe Institute on Tuesday. She points out that when the low-income cutoff was first adopted in 1959, it defined low income as less than the amount a family would need in order not to spend more than 70 per cent of its income on certain basic necessities.
Since 1959, this percentage has been progressively lowered as average Canadian incomes have risen so that any family that now has to spend more than just 55 per cent of income on basic necessities is deemed to have a low income. If this current standard were applied retroactively, the low-income rate for women would have been close to 50 per cent in 1959 as compared to fewer than 19 per cent today.
So dramatic an improvement ought to cheer Townson. Instead, she misuses StatsCan's low-income cutoffs to make unfounded claims about allegedly rising levels of women's poverty.
There is only one remedy for the errors and confusions generated by the low-income cutoffs: As Norman recommends, StatsCan should drop the measure altogether. To gauge relatively low incomes, she would have the agency stick to a straightforward low-income measure based on half the median income for families of various size and composition.
As a poverty standard, Norman favours an absolute market basket measure. Human Resources Development Canada is currently preparing such a measure at the request of the provincial social service ministers. Ideally, this standard should be based on the minimum income that families of various size across Canada would need to purchase all of the basic necessities of life.
Townson is dead set against such an official definition of poverty. She maintains that the new market based measure, "will almost certainly result in much lower measured rates of poverty among all groups, including women."
On this point, she is probably right. According to the latest revision of StatsCan's low-income cutoffs, $33,000 is deemed to be a relatively low income for a family of four living in Montreal. Who can believe that such a family cannot typically afford all the basic necessities of life?
With a realistic, official measure of poverty, Canadians could know the real extent of the problem. They could readily identify the genuinely poor and insist they get greater income support and other forms of assistance.
As it is, Townson has misused StatsCan's low-income cutoffs as a measure of poverty. She makes alarming allegations about rising rates poverty among Canadian women without offering any solid statistical evidence.