Edmonton Sun

Sunday, April 9, 2000

'Feminization of poverty'

Edmonton Sun

You would have thought that the lot of women would have improved significantly since the report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women three decades ago.

But according to a study prepared for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, there has been virtually no improvement in the poverty rates of women over the years.

"The message must not be lost on policy-makers in this country," says economic consultant Monica Townson in her paper, A Report Card on Women and Poverty.

It is time, she writes, "to end the feminization of poverty in Canada."

Indeed, her overview of the economic prosperity of women in Canada is bleak.

Three decades ago, for instance, about half of women aged 65 or older who were on their own were considered poor.

Today, the percentage remains the same.

The royal commission reported that almost 52% of women heading single-parent families were poor.

These days, 56% of women in that category live in poverty.

Overall, almost 19% of adult women, or 2.2 million women, are poor, says Townson.

If the figures seem unbelievable, you can blame it on Statistics Canada's much-maligned low-income cutoff (LICO), which measures low income in relative terms in comparison with the rest of the population.

As such, the LICO is not so much a reflection of true poverty as it is an snapshot of inequality.

And Statistics Canada has made it clear that its LICO is not to be considered a poverty line.

In reality, the low-income cutoff simply identifies those who are substantially worse off than average.

The inevitable result, of course, is that there will always be poor people - even if they can afford the basic necessities of food, clothing and shelter.

So although Canada doesn't have an official poverty line, Townson uses LICO to document women's poverty.

Hence the alarming figures. That is not to say that there aren't lots of Canadian women (and men) who are in genuine poverty.

But until we've come up with a reasonable definition of poverty, we should be skeptical of claims that such a huge percentage of Canadians are at the brink of starvation.

In fact, Ottawa is working on a new needs-based measure of poverty based on whether individuals or families can afford the basic necessities.

The debate over what constitutes poverty aside, Townson rightly points out that men still dominate the higher-earning groups while most women remain in low-paying jobs.

In a sense, it really is the "feminization of poverty" because many low-skilled jobs traditionally done by men pay much better than the low-skilled jobs performed by women.

(Why else are day-care workers paid so poorly?)

At least single women have a choice. You want better-paying work? Upgrade your education and change jobs. No one's stopping you.

Married women with kids often find their earning capacity drops dramatically though because they have to make do with part-time jobs due to family responsibilities.

As Townson notes, "Often women have no choice about accepting this kind of work."

On the other hand, men are under a different kind of pressure - they're expected to work longer hours for demanding bosses driven by global competition.

There's no easy answer but more family friendly workplaces and affordable child care would be a start.

That way, more women - and men - could climb out of the poverty trap.

Mindelle can be reached by e-mail at mjacobs@sunpub.com.
Letters to the editor should be sent to sun.letters@ccinet.ab.ca.

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