Seniors' poverty rates on the rise in Canada

Before beginning to do my research to develop the content for this post, I was under the impression that Canada was doing pretty well in the area of seniors’ poverty. The number of seniors living in poverty in Canada declined steadily over the last 35 years through the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) and Quebec Pension Plan (QPP), Old Age Security (OAS), and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS). Currently, the number of seniors in poverty is lower than the number of children and working-age people in poverty, as recent reports suggest. This is considered a great public policy success.

As a result, many Canadians are under the impression that seniors’ poverty is something we no longer have to worry about. This simply is not true. Seniors’ poverty is now on the rise again, according to census 2013 information cited by the Broadbent institute. Rates are especially high among single senior women who live alone, aboriginal seniors, immigrant seniors, seniors with disabilities, and gay and lesbian seniors. According to a report by the National Seniors Strategy for Canada, published in January, there are over 600,000 seniors living in “low income” according to the after-tax low income measure.

Seniors who do not have employer pensions, or have not had the opportunity to contribute to C/QPP, rely on benefits provided by OAS and GIS to meet their daily needs. More often the seniors relying on these programs are women, who have historically carried the burden of unpaid labour such as cooking, cleaning, and caregiving, and who have longer life-expectancies. The recent increase in seniors’ poverty (especially single senior women) can be attributed in part to the fact that the OAS and GIS income assistance programs have not risen at the same rate as the incomes of Canadian households as a whole.

The current liberal government has promised to increase the GIS for single seniors by 10% between 2016-2017, which should help to close the gap between the benefit amount and the poverty line, according to the Broadbent Institute. This is a good start. However, it does not address the impending crush of baby boomers who are about to retire without adequate savings.

There have been a number of news stories lately, based on the study from the Broadbent Institute, citing the fact that the vast majority of Canadians will not have enough savings to live comfortably into the retirement years. More Canadians are working without employer-funded pensions than ever before, and private savings vehicles such as the Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP) and the Tax Free Savings Account (TFSA) have proven useful for Canadians who have above average income. For most families, there is not enough surplus to contribute meaningfully to these plans. As a result, as boomers retire greater numbers will be relying on the benefits of CPP, OAS and GIS, and will be living in poverty. The Broadbent study projects that in ten to fifteen years’ time we will be looking at a large segment of the population living in poverty. The study calls for major reform in CPP, OAS, and GIS benefits.

It is important for Canadians to become aware of issues surrounding seniors’ poverty, so that we can ensure the necessary changes take place before this becomes a national crisis. Already, 1 in 3 single senior women, and 1 in 4 single senior men are living in poverty; this is far too many. The time for action is definitely upon us, so that we do not lose the gains we have made in the last several decades.

One last note related to seniors’ poverty: while I was looking for information on the topic of seniors’ poverty in Canada, I was puzzled to find there was very little information about seniors living in extreme poverty. This is because homelessness and marginal existence have a significant impact on a person’s life expectancy. According to one research study, the average life expectancy of a homeless person in Canada is 39. As a newly minted social worker who plans to devote her career to caring and advocating for older adults, this fact is heartbreaking. It reinforces the importance of the work of ending poverty and homelessness in Canada, so that more Canadians have the opportunity to enjoy a long life.

Talya Madden is a new social worker and a recent graduate of the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program at King’s University College. She is committed to working towards an equitable society, and is especially passionate about working with older adults. Talya can be found on Twitter at @taliemad