How do you eliminate gendered poverty? Start by creating smart public policies, like these places around the globe
By Stacy Lee Kong
Linda experienced poverty—and homelessness—for years. Once a registered nurse, she lost her job, her home and custody of her son because of addiction, and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression and bipolar disorder. And even though she’s now sober and working as a customer service representative, the 61-year-old is still experiencing poverty—and that’s for reasons completely unrelated to her mental or physical health. Her wages are low enough that she still needs to depend on the Ontario Disability Support Program, and she can’t find safe, affordable housing. “Being a woman in poverty, I just don’t think that the same opportunities are out there,” she says. “I think men have more opportunities.”
Linda isn’t far off. Women are paid less for the same work, are more likely to have low-paying and precarious jobs, and tend to take responsibility for childcare and elder care. All of this means they are more likely to experience poverty than men.
“Men have suffered the impacts of precarious employment more recently, but women have always suffered from it,” says Laura McDonough, senior manager of research, public policy and evaluation at United Way Greater Toronto and lead author of The Opportunity Equation, a United Way report that tracks income inequality in the GTA. “They’ve always been at the bottom. They’ve always been the poorest. They’ve always been ones who derive the least benefit from the opportunities that they get.”
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Elsewhere in the country and around the world, there are programs and policies that are making life better for women. Here are six we’d like to see implemented in the GTA.
1Affordable and accessible childcare
“In Ontario, we have the highest daycare costs in the entire country,” says Katie Didyk, communications coordinator at Times Change Women’s Employment Services, a United Way–funded organization. “Mothers earn 15 percent less than fathers, and single mothers have the lowest average adjusted income among women. So, these women aren’t paid at any rate that they could call a livable wage, and still they’re required to pay up to $1,685 per month—that’s the average in Ontario. Now imagine you have two children: You’re looking at over $3,000 per month!”
And that’s if you can even find a daycare spot. According to a 2018 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, almost half of all Canadian children live in “childcare deserts,” where there aren’t enough openings to go around.
Compare Ontario’s situation to the one in Quebec, where the province has been providing subsidized childcare—and subsequently allowing more mothers to enter the workforce in far greater numbers—since 1996. Parents pay for childcare on a sliding scale, thanks to government subsidies; their children can attend publicly subsidized centres de la petite enfance (CPE) or, if they can’t get a space, they can opt for private centres or home-based care. In those cases, the government reimburses families for up to 75 percent of the cost through a tax credit. While the system isn’t perfect (some have criticized a lack of spaces in CPEs), the fees Quebec parents pay are significantly lower. According to the provincial government’s childcare cost calculator, a single-parent household with an annual income of $50,000 will pay $5.85 a day for a CPE space and $4.30 for a non-subsidized space, or $117 and $86 per month, respectively.
Implementing such a strategy in Ontario would take political will—and that means more women need to be in the room, says Didyk. “Why do you think that we are still tackling this issue?” she asks. “Not enough women were in the position of power when discussing childcare, frankly.”
2Improved access to affordable housing
Imagine living in the country’s largest metropolitan area and paying only a few hundred dollars in rent. That’s the case in Vienna, where 62 percent of residents live in city-built, -sponsored or -managed housing, and pay between $470 and $600 in rent per month, according to the Austrian Federation of Limited-Profit Housing Associations.
For women experiencing poverty, affordable, safe housing is integral to bettering their circumstances, and in Ontario, it’s increasingly difficult to come by. McDonough and her colleagues are currently working on a report looking at who lives in high-rise rental housing in Toronto and how that’s changed over the last decades. “Again, you see disproportionate numbers of single mothers living in the only affordable housing stock that this region has,” says McDonough. “Saving this kind of stock will disproportionately positively impact women.”
But implementing a strategy like Vienna’s in the GTA wouldn’t be easy. Austria has a century-long history of investing in public housing, and the city (which is also a province, and Austria’s only metropolitan region) receives millions of dollars in funding from the federal government. According to a 2018 report, Vienna finances social housing by levying a one per cent tax on all residents; half of that gets deducted from their wages and the other half comes from employer matching programs. Now imagine that proposed in the GTA, where income tax isn’t exactly a popular move in our current political landscape.
3Paying people a living wage
Precarious and low-wage work is on the rise—a 2019 Statistics Canada report found that the proportion of workers earning minimum wage grew from just over 5 percent to more than 10 percent between 1998 and 2018—and most of that growth happened between 2017 and 2018. “We know that one of the dynamics that is really driving poverty in our region is the rise of precarious employment,” says McDonough.
One solution is to increase the amount we pay people—and to change the conversation from instituting a minimum wage to instituting a livable one. That’s what happened in Emeryville, California, where the minimum wage was gradually raised to $16.30 per hour after then-mayor Ruth Atkin “[recast] the city’s minimum wage into something closer to a living wage,” according to a 2019 New York Times article. That’s more than twice the U.S. federally mandated minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, and 16 percent higher than Ontario’s $14-an-hour minimum wage.
“Economically, there has been a wage gap between women and men historically, traditionally and continuing on to today,” says Didyk. “Women only make 87 cents for every dollar a man earns. That’s a problem. That’s an issue that keeps women at the poverty level.”
Didyk says there’s one relatively easy solution: pay transparency. “Doing that brings in a more diverse group [of employees], of course, but it’s also levelling the playing field, because women now can have a sense of exactly what their negotiating [power] can be,” she says.
Some governments have taken a firm stance on pay transparency. Since 2001, France and Sweden have required employers to review their pay practices, while the U.K. “bolstered protections for workers who disclose their own wages” more than a decade ago, according to a 2017 American Progress article. And Iceland became the first country in the world to actually make the wage gap illegal; in 2018, the country passed a new law that forces companies with 25 or more employees to prove they pay men and women equally—and fines them if they don’t.
To be fair, in 2018, Ontario did pass the Pay Transparency Act, a law that would require employers to include a salary rate or range with every job posting and, if the company employs more than 100 people, to track wage gaps based on gender and other characteristics. The Act would also prohibit companies from asking job applicants about their past compensation and forbid employers from punishing employees who discuss their wages. It was supposed to come into effect on Jan. 1, 2019, but the Ontario government introduced legislation in November 2018 that delayed its implementation. It’s now expected to come into effect sometime in 2020. If that does happen, the public sector will be “the first to apply the measures, followed by employers with more than 500 employees, then those with more than 250 workers,” according to a CBC report.
5Ending violence against women
Gender-based violence keeps women in poverty—and, Didyk says, it’s a problem that intersects with other issues. “It cross-sections with everything. It doesn’t allow women to move on to better housing; their health is affected; they tend to be on social assistance. And it’s certainly work-related, too,” she says.
According to authors and academics David L. Richards and Jillienne Haglund, strong laws can help. “Countries with greater domestic legal protections against gender violence have less gender-based inequality, greater levels of human development and lower female HIV rates,” they wrote in a 2015 Washington Post op-ed.
Canada does have strong laws in this area. In fact, several provinces, including Ontario, have a panel intended to study and prevent domestic violence—here, it’s the Ontario Domestic Violence Death Review Committee—but there’s sometimes a problem with follow-through. In a 2019 Maclean’s article, the Ontario committee’s chair, Deirdre Bainbridge, said that while the group makes recommendations to several agencies, she has only seen a handful of responses over the past two years. On the opposite end of the spectrum in Australia, the Coroner’s Act requires not only a response to any recommendations but also that it be made public. That’s powerful because it means the government is held immediately and consistently to account — something that would go a long way toward improving Ontario’s performance in this area.
And poverty doesn’t just cause poor health; poor health can also perpetuate poverty, even in a country like Canada that has a universal health-care system. That’s because people who are experiencing poverty may not see the same doctor consistently, which means it’s more difficult to stay on top of chronic health conditions. And, while our health care is covered, prescription drugs, vision and dental care are not—and those costs can quickly become overwhelming. This is especially true for women because, according to a 2015 report by the Wellesley Institute, a non-partisan think tank focused on urban health, Canadian women are less likely to have employer-provided benefits than men, likely because they are more often doing precarious work.
But consider the difference a comprehensive healthcare program could make. The U.K.’s famed National Health Service has a program called the Low-Income Scheme that covers prescriptions, dental, eye care, health-care travel costs and some additional items (including wigs and surgical bras).
“It doesn’t really matter what trend you’re looking at, whether it’s precarious employment or access to housing or social assistance or inequality, what you see is that women, and especially women of colour, are always at the bottom,” McDonough says. “So [we have to] design policies and programs that are going to benefit those people specifically in order to level that playing field.”