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Opinion

Why we need to care about single adults living in poverty

Published on 29/06/2022

Imagine what would happen if the entire population of London – Ontario’s fifth largest city – suddenly found themselves living in poverty. If every one of its 430,000 inhabitants had less than $1,200 to live on each month. Or, even worse, if some had less than $750 to see them through. What would we do?

Many of us would like to believe that we’d do something about it. So why don’t we do anything about the 430,000 single adults in Ontario who live far below the poverty line on social assistance?

The popular imagination has long been dominated by particular notions of who is on welfare – single mothers and people with disabilities, and, of course, the so-called “idlers,” the people who simply don’t work. Certainly, lone parents and people with particular types of disabilities do make up a notable portion of social assistance caseloads. But that’s not the whole story. It’s not even most of the story.

The majority of social assistance cases in Ontario – both Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) – are of “unattached singles” (adults who are not married/do not live with their partner). In fact, as our forthcoming Social Assistance Summaries report will show, these single adults made up more than 60 per cent of OW cases and nearly 80 per cent of ODSP cases in 2021. Together, they equal the population of Ontario’s fastest growing city.

If you’re tempted to think that those single adults on OW are the “idlers,” consider this:

The social assistance system that we have today was designed for another time. A time when a full-time job was secure and came with a wage that afforded an adequate standard of living. It might even have come with benefits and a pension. A time when the prevailing view of disability was that it is physical, visible, and unchanging. A time when a social safety net was considered a form of charity and focused on “worthy” recipients, such as children, seniors, and people with disabilities.

This does not reflect the reality of today’s labour market, nor our more nuanced understanding of disability. It does not reflect the myriad ways that our social systems create poverty – from failing to provide adequate mental health and addiction services, to pushing young people out of care without support, to failing to help people leaving prison to establish a new life. Importantly, it does not align with the recognition that it is the government’s duty to ensure that each person can experience a life with dignity.

Social assistance was intended to be an emergency system – a last resort when all else failed. Well, all else is failing. Our other social systems are not preventing single adults from living in poverty. Rather, these systems are pushing people into poverty and holding them there. Our labour laws allow employers to pay workers poverty wages and impose insecure and degrading working conditions on them. In some cases, employers are not even required to acknowledge that people are employees and treat them as such. What standards there are go largely unenforced.

Our employment insurance system was also designed for the loss of “traditional” full-time jobs, and excludes the many people who are employed precariously or misclassified as independent contractors today.

Our methods of deciding who can access disability benefits are not equipped to handle invisible, mental health, or episodic disabilities that cause a person’s condition to fluctuate unpredictably. As a result, many people with these types of disabilities are not eligible for disability benefits.

Unlike for children, seniors, and people with some types of disabilities, who have targeted programs to increase income and access to health care and other supports, very few government programs exist to “fill in the gaps” for single adults.

As a result, our systems have left a large swath of people behind. The 430,000 single adults on social assistance in Ontario are just one, identifiable, part of this group.

That should be troubling. If it was in fact the entire city of London, Ontario, most of us would expect that our governments would take action. That, collectively, we would care to make it better.

We should care about single adults because every person, regardless of their age, marital status, or employment status, has the human right to an adequate standard of living and a life with dignity. We should care because many single adults could avoid poverty if our social systems were designed to help people achieve a dignified life, rather than to make people slightly less poor.

At the very least, we should care because the prevalence of single adults living in poverty shows us that our social safety net is a relic of another era, as is our notion of who needs it.

Topic(s)

Human rights, Income security, Poverty

Summary

The prevalence of single adults living in poverty shows us that our social safety net is a relic of another era.