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Webinar recording

Webinar recording: How to reduce the depth of single adult poverty in Canada – understanding the challenges and proposing a viable solution

Published on 19/09/2022

Canada’s social safety net is failing working-age single adults without children. Unattached single adults represent 50 per cent of the over 1.8 million people living in deep poverty in Canada. Yet, they continue to receive the lowest income support benefits across the country, perpetuating their depth of poverty, and preventing working-age single adults from having an adequate standard of living.

How can Canada do better?

Maytree and Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC) are proposing the creation of the Canada Working-Age Supplement (CWAS). If implemented, the CWAS would build on the current Canada Workers Benefit, reduce the depth of poverty working-age single adults experience by up to 40 percent, and could be implemented without delay.

Access the report here.

The webinar, recorded on September 16, 2022, started with a brief presentation on the proposed Canada Working-Age Supplement, followed by a panel discussion on the challenges and opportunities available to address the depth of poverty working-age single adults experience.


  • Mohy Tabbara, Policy Advisor, Maytree


  • Elizabeth McIsaac, President, Maytree


  • Shane Pelletier, Co-ordinator, National Indigenous Homelessness Council; Member with lived experience on the National Advisory Council on Poverty
  • Jennefer Laidley, Independent Consultant
  • Garima Talwar Kapoor, Director of Policy and Research, Maytree
  • Sherri Hanley, Director of Policy and Community Action, CFCC

Watch the recording:


Please note: This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Elizabeth McIsaac

Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Elizabeth McIsaac and I’m the president of Maytree, a private foundation dedicated to creating solutions to poverty, taking a human rights-based approach. We believe that the most enduring way to fix the systems that create poverty is to ensure that economic and social rights are respected, protected, and fulfilled for all people living in Canada.

I’d like to begin today’s session by acknowledging the land where we live and work, and recognizing our responsibilities and relationships where we are. As we are meeting and connecting virtually today, I encourage you to acknowledge the place you occupy. I acknowledge that I am, and Maytree is, on the traditional territory of many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishinaabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat Peoples, and is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples. While Toronto is covered by Treaty 13 with the Mississaugas of the Credit, this territory is also covered by the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and the Ojibwe and Allied Nations to peaceably share and care for the lands and resources around the Great Lakes.

A couple of housekeeping notes before we begin. If live closed captioning service would support you through this webinar, please know that you can access that by clicking on closed caption at the bottom of your Zoom screen. You’ll also notice that the chat function is enabled. If you have a question that you would like to pose to the panelists as we get to that portion of the session, I ask that you please use the question and answer function at the bottom of the screen. I will be steering the questions. I will not be looking to the chat. I will only be looking at the Q&A box. So please, if you have questions to go to the panelists or to myself, please put them in the Q&A box.

And so without further ado, I’m delighted to be welcoming you all to our webinar today. As you know, unattached working-age single adults without children face the highest and deepest rates of poverty in Canada. This trend has been persistent and reflects not only the inadequacies of our income support system in the limitations of low wage work in our labor market, but also who we deem worthy of a life with dignity. To address the depth of poverty and working-age singles experience, Maytree and Community Food Centres of Canada have been working for over a year and a half to develop a proposal for a federal income support benefit that would be targeted to working-age single adults. The proposed Canada Working-Age Supplement, as we are calling it, builds on and enhances the current work Canada Workers Benefit and would be provided to unattached working-age adults, whether they’re working or not.

Our recent report is available in both English and French and can be accessed on our website. I believe my colleague Yukon will be putting a link to that page in the chat room so that you can go directly to that. It’s available in French and English and there’s also a summary or upshot report that provides a digested version if you’re not into the longer technical version. I’m not going to get into the details of the content, that’s what we have our presentation and panel lined up to do. So I’m going to move forward and just give you a couple of details.

We’re going to begin by turning it over to my colleague, Mohy Tabbara. Mohy is a policy advisor here at Maytree, and he’s going to provide a short overview of the proposed CWAS. We will then turn it to our panel, which we’re delighted to have with us today for discussion not necessarily on the proposal itself, although it will undoubtedly come up, but rather on the broader challenges and opportunities that we have to address working-age single adult poverty in Canada. So let’s start with Mohy. Let’s dive into what this CWAS proposal looks like. Mohy, over to you.


Mohy Tabbara

Hello, everyone. I’m so glad you could join us. As Elizabeth said, my name is Mohy Tabbara. I’m a policy advisor at Maytree and I lead our work on income security. I’m also one of the co-authors of this report. I come to you from Tiohti:áke or Montreal, which is situated on the traditional territory of the Kanien’kehà:ka, a place which has long served as a site of meeting in exchange amongst many First Nations including the Kanien’kehá:ka of the Haudenosaunee of the Confederacy, the Huron/Wendat, Abenaki, and Anishinaabeg.

Today, I’m very excited to present the main findings of the report. As the title says, if implemented, the idea that we’re proposing would meaningfully reduce the depth of poverty of working-age single adults without children, that is adults between 18 and 65 who do not have a partner or children. I’ll refer to this group as unattached singles to simplify.

The presentation will have three sections. First, I will provide a portrait of unattached singles poverty in Canada. Then I will introduce our proposal for the creation of the Canada Working-Age Supplement or CWAS. And, finally, I will demonstrate the potential impact of this policy to reduce the depth of unattached singles poverty across the country.

Let’s start with, why are we focusing on unattached singles? As you can see in this first graph, since 2015, unattached singles, the navy line, are much more likely to live below the official poverty line than the rest of the population, the grey line. In 2020, the poverty rate generally declined because of pandemic supports, but it was still significant for unattached singles at over 27%. This is compared to about 6% for the general population.

The data for this graph comes from Maytree’s Social Assistance Summaries report. This year for the first time we acquired and were able to publish disaggregated data by household type and gender/sex. The data confirmed, which we long suspected, unattached singles are by far the most likely group to receive social assistance across the country. As you can see in this graph, in 14 of 20 social assistance programs, unattached singles are the largest group of recipients. These programs are navy and turquoise in the graph. In the other six, they are the second largest group. We can corroborate this picture of social assistance when looking at who in Canada lives in deep poverty. Deep poverty means living below 75% of the official poverty line.

Unfortunately, there are 1.8 million people in Canada living in deep poverty, more than half are unattached singles. They are in navy in this graph. That means that there are more unattached singles living in deep poverty than seniors, children, single parents, and couples combined. So given this portrait, you may ask how is the federal government supporting unattached singles. Unattached singles living in deep poverty are eligible for two federal income support programs, the GST/HST tax credit and the Climate Action Incentive. Combined, they provide between $300 and $800 of income support per year.

There’s a third program they could have access to, the Canada Workers Benefit or CWB. The model for this refundable tax credit is presented here. As you can see at the bottom left corner of the graph, those with employment incomes below $3,000 get zero from the CWB. According to our modeling, this means that around 1 million unattached singles living in deep poverty are ineligible for this support. When it was first introduced, the purpose of this program was to encourage people to work. This can be seen in how its shape was designed, a trapezoid. It starts with an upward slope, which means the more recipient earns from work, the higher the benefit amount they would receive. We call this the employment boost.

Governments across Canada have purposely kept supports for working-age adults at inadequate levels to incentivize their labor market participation instead of prioritizing poverty reduction. We believe that it’s time for governments to support unattached singles living in poverty not because they’ve earned it as workers, but because they need it as people.

In considering how to increase federal income support for unattached singles, we had three objectives in mind. First, the income support should be targeted to unattached singles. It should complement existing programs and it should not conflict with them or replace them. Second, we decided to focus on existing eligibility of an existing federal support because it could be more expedient than designing a new program and it avoids creating additional complexity in the system. And, third, that the income support should be a predictable and stable source of income.

I would like to emphasize that we insist that our proposal is meant to be complementary to other efforts to increase income support for unattached singles such as increasing social, social assistance benefits and creating a Canada disability benefit. So what’s our pitch? We proposed to transform the Canada Workers Benefit that I showed you earlier into the Canada Working-Age Supplement or CWAS. Why the CWB and not another program? The CWB has two streams, one for families and one for unattached singles, which would allow us to target this group. And it’s also meant for low income people, although as we saw in the earlier slide many people in deep poverty are currently ineligible for it.

Implementing this transformation requires two parameter changes, creating a floor amount and increasing the maximum amount. I’ll explain this further in the next slide. We tested 11 models of what the CWAS could look like, four are analyzed in the reports. I will present Model 4, which is the one that we recommend. This table compares key parameters between CWB and CWAS. As we saw, under the CWB, unattached singles who earn less than $3,000 of employment income per year are ineligible. Thus, the floor amount or foundational amount of CWB they can receive is $0. The CWAS would change that. By establishing a floor amount of $3,000, unattached singles with little or no employment income would be guaranteed this foundational support from the federal government. The CWAS would maintain the employment boost parameter of the CWB as you can see. But because CWAS recipients would be starting from a higher floor, the maximum benefit after the employment boost is noticeably higher, at $4,000 for the CWAS versus 1,395 for CWB. This means that CWAS wouldn’t only benefit people in deep poverty, but also those with low and moderate earnings.

It would be helpful to see what this looks like visually. In this graph, we can compare the model for CWB, which is the trapezoid in navy, to the model of the proposed CWAS in green. First and foremost, you can compare what the higher floor for CWAS would mean for people in deep poverty. Some of the most vulnerable people in society would go from receiving nothing from the CWB to $3,000 from CWAS. You can also see the line with the upward slope that is the employment boost. The CWAS employment boost is slightly shorter, but it leads so much higher maximum amount, which would greatly benefit those that have some earnings. Overall, everyone currently eligible for the CWB would see their benefit increase under CWAS.

As you can see, CWAS would include a wider spectrum of incomes, which means more people would be eligible. In fact, 3.1 million unattached singles would receive CWAS, which is 2.1 million more than the CWB. Importantly, 1 million of the new eligible recipients would be unattached singles in deep poverty earning less than $3,000 in employment income.

The next three slides will look at the potential impact of implementing CWAS. This graph shows how much the unattached singles benefit would increase compared to CWB by income category. The impact would be most significantly felt among people in deep poverty with little to no income, which makes sense, given that they currently aren’t eligible for the CWB. Again, unattached singles currently eligible for CWB would still get more from CWAS.

The next two graphs show us how a top up from the CWAS floor amount, in orange, would impact the incomes of unattached singles who are receiving social assistance. I will then compare this top-up income to the official poverty line, just the hard black line, and the deep poverty line, the dotted line. This graph focuses on unattached singles considered employable. This term essentially means without a disability. While we acknowledge that it’s a dated term, we are using it here for consistency with language used across governments.

As you can see, implementing CWAS would lift recipients in Quebec above the deep poverty line. However, social assistance rates are so inadequate that even with the additional $3,000 from CWAS, recipients in other provinces would stay in deep poverty. Still, while CWAS wouldn’t eliminate poverty by itself for this group, it would certainly reduce the depth of poverty. In New Brunswick and Nova Scotia for example, it would represent an almost 40% increase in their income support.

For social assistance recipients who are unattached singles with disabilities, implementing CWAS would raise incomes above the deep poverty level in seven provinces. Those receiving AISH in Alberta would come within $400 of the official poverty line.

With that, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to listen to my presentation. I strongly encourage you to read the full report or even the upshot as Elizabeth mentioned. It includes more detailed analysis and presents nine recommendations to go beyond the transformation from CWB to CWAS. We hope that you’ll help us make the CWAS a reality. I’ll pass it back to Elizabeth for the panel discussion.

Panel discussion

Elizabeth McIsaac

Thank you, Mohy. That was terrific. And I think even I was able to get all the nuances. Really well done. Thank you. And congratulations on a big piece of work completed.

I’m absolutely delighted to have the panel that we have lined up for us for a conversation now to talk, first and foremost, about the experience of poverty among single working-age adults in Canada. So I’m going to introduce them one at a time, and I’m going to introduce them in the order in which I’m going to ask them to answer questions. So first, Jennefer Laidley. Jennefer is an independent consultant. She’s also the co-author of Maytree’s Welfare in Canada report and has spent many years doing policy advocacy on social assistance and other income security programs at both the provincial and the federal levels. Previously, she was the policy analyst with the Income Security Advocacy Centre here in Toronto. Welcome, Jennefer.

I’m also pleased to introduce Shane Pelletier. Shane has dedicated his career and life to working with people living homeless in Western Canada. Hi, Shane. For close to two decades, Shane has trudged the road to happy destiny in his life and work, starting on the front lines, working with people on the fringes of marginalization, to today, where he is the coordinator for a national organization working to ameliorate urban, rural, and Northern First Nations, Inuit and Metis homelessness, the National Indigenous Homelessness Council. Shane is also a member with lived experience on the National Advisory Council on Poverty. Welcome, Shane, and thank you for joining us.

Next, I’m pleased to introduce Sherri Hanley. Sherri has been around public policy for a long time, and that’s a good thing. Sherri’s work on public policy goes to work with municipalities, going back to work with FCM. She’s currently, however, the director of policy and community action at Community Food Centres of Canada and joins us in that capacity. Thank you for joining us, Sherri.

And, finally, my colleague, Garima Talwar Kapoor, who is the director of policy and research here at Maytree. She told me I didn’t have to say anything, but I will say she drives our public policy agenda, social policy agenda here at Maytree, but we scooped her. She spent a number of years inside government at the Ontario Public Service and in Ministry of Finance. So comes with some good insights about how things get done inside.

So without further ado, let’s start the conversation. And Jennefer, I’m going to start with you. You have years of policy experience in this space looking at social assistance programs and disability support programs. You have worked on our Welfare in Canada report. When we think about the challenges that working-age single adults face, what do you see as the big problems that you think need to be addressed? What do we need to be focused on?

Jennefer Laidley

Thanks, Elizabeth. First let me say thank you very much for having me on the panel today. I’m really pleased to be here and especially with such a great proposal. I’m joining you from my home in the unseated territory of the Snunéymuxw First Nation on Gabriel Island in BC.

In answer to your question, I want to talk about a couple of sets of problems. I think that there’s a set of problems in the realm of policy itself and there’s a set of problems in the sort of assumptions that underlie that policy. So, first on the policy problems, we know that in Canada, vast majority of income supports for working-age single adults through social assistance programs. The biggest policy problem here in terms of poverty is that benefit levels are so incredibly low.

For example, here in BC, the total income of an unattached single who’s considered employable, as Mohy mentioned, is about 45% of the poverty line. It’s hovered at that level since about 2002. In Nova Scotia, it’s about 36%. Saskatchewan, about 48%. In a very few jurisdictions, incomes have actually improved relative to the poverty line over that time, although none is above it. In some jurisdictions, things have actually gotten worse. So we see in Ontario that the income of an unattached single has dropped from 45% of the poverty line in 2002 to 40% in 2021. At the provincial level, there’s been a policy decision to keep benefit levels low. That’s a big problem in terms of the depth and the persistence of poverty of working-age single adults who really have no other sources of income in terms of benefits. At the federal level, very few, I should qualify, very few sources of income other than benefit levels.

At the federal level, I want to point out that there was a very important policy change made nearly 30 years ago, that I think has set the stage for this problem. In 1995 the Chrétien government announced the end of the Canada Assistance Plan. Now, CAP was a very important program. It was a 50/50 cost sharing agreement between the feds and the provinces for social safety net programs including social assistance. It included several conditions for how the money could be spent. It was replaced by the Canada Health and Social Transfer, which provided less than the previous transfer amounts. It removed many of the national standards for social assistance policy, and there were no conditions to guarantee that the monies provided for social assistance would actually be spent on social assistance.

So it was a negotiated agreement. There’s a great quote from a Ken Battle and Sherri Torjman paper from 1995 that says that in return for less money from Ottawa, the provinces will have the freedom to design their own welfare systems and to experiment with welfare reforms. And many did just that. They created various kinds of work programs in which getting benefits is conditional on some kind of activity. They reduced CAP benefit rates. So the end of CAP and the resulting provincial policy decisions have had a big impact on the depth and persistence of poverty over time for folks who are on social assistance.

Now, the second set of problems are about the assumptions. This is where the politics of increasing social assistance benefit levels can be very difficult, because these assumptions revolve around the role of work in our society. Some of these assumptions are, firstly, that work is a way out of poverty. We know that that’s not the case for everyone. That those who can’t work are deserving of support, but those who can work are not deserving of support. Another assumption is that people are fundamentally lazy. This is one of the assumptions that underlie our system. That people will take advantage of the system if given the chance, so they have to be sort of coerced into working.

These assumptions contribute to this drive, as Mohy was saying, to keep benefit levels low, because doing so is understood as an incentive to getting a job. But there are a number of problems with this. Low benefit levels can actually prevent people from moving into work because they don’t have the resources required to get a job. The push to get people into work as a policy priority often means that they simply move from poverty and social assistance to poverty and low-wage work. People may cycle back onto social assistance simply because work isn’t working for them. Keeping benefit levels low as the way to incentivize work not only perpetuates and institutionalizes poverty, it’s also really counterproductive to the objective.

As a basis for public policy, these assumptions just aren’t working because if they were, we wouldn’t have people on social assistance in this country. These assumptions and the policy decisions that have been made are persistent over decades. So, we’ve got income support programs for people who can’t work like children and seniors, because they’re seen as deserving. But given that work so often doesn’t work, as happens for many working-age single adults, we need to recognize that these assumptions aren’t serving us very well and find policy solutions that achieve what should be the real objective, which should be to ensure that no one is living in poverty in a country as rich as Canada. Sorry, I’ve probably gone on for too long, but those are my thoughts. Thank you.

Elizabeth McIsaac

Really helpful thoughts. Thank you, Jennefer. I want to turn from there to some of the experience of living in this deep poverty that you’ve described, what does that look and feel like. Shane, you’re a member on the National Advisory Council on Poverty. Through this role and through your work more broadly, you’ve spoken to lots of people about the challenges of living in poverty and deep poverty, and what that looks like. Can you share with us a little bit about what you have heard and seen in that journey?

Shane Pelletier

Sure. First though, I would like to take a moment and speak to the people in Saskatchewan, specifically Treaty 6 territory or those impacted by the tragedies at the James Smith Cree Nation. A message to Okimaw Wally Burns that we’re continuing to think about you and we continue to grieve alongside of you guys and your community.

As it relates to our work here, the James Smith Cree Nation of course is not isolated from the colonial concepts of poverty and nor are they protected from its impacts. It’s demonstrated in the scarce resources in public health, policing and healing centres for substance use treatment. So we join his call and the call of many across the nation for help in that area. I, myself, am living in Calgary currently in a place that is traditionally called, and forgive me if I did this wrong, but Moh’kinsstis. This is a teaching I received from elder Rod Scott of the Blackfoot Confederacy. Forgive me if I got the pronunciation wrong as I work to internalize that word and its meaning. The territories of Calgary are actually many and include the Blackfoot Confederacy, Siksika Nation, the Kainai and Piikani, and the Tsuut’ina nation where I actually sit on the outside in the city of Calgary on the banks of above the shores of the Elbow River. It also includes the Stoney Nakoda Nations and the Metis Nation Region 3.

In Calgary, I would say specifically in my experience living in the city, poverty is very visible. It’s on the streets. In general, you can follow it visibly through the veins of public transit across the city. Some of the things that the poorest of the poor deal with here are of course environmental, leaning on my own experience back when I was a teenager and living on the streets, sleeping in stairwells and minus 30 weather, it’s not very nice. So we definitely deal with environmental elements here.

Another element is racism and even systemic racism, police brutality, criminalization of poverty, food insecurity, and the cost of living commensurate with the quality of life. We deal with community disparity and public health issues around poverty as well. But to temper that with some good news, there are a lot of people that are working, a lot of local champions here that continue to nurture and care for our poor. We have many community organizations and services, and even governmental programs, that attempt to bring health and wellness in their own way. So we appreciate those people.

Thank you for your question, and thank you for everybody that’s joining in today. A big shout-out to Maytree, who continues to lead this work across the nation for us. Thank you for your leadership. These are really difficult challenges and difficult questions. So I really appreciate you guys coming up with a really tangible plan. What it’ll look like in the end, we’re unsure of, but thank you so much for leading this work. And of course, Garima, thank you so much for reaching out to me in our conversations.

I sit on the council and over the last couple years… First, a couple disclaimers. I didn’t speak with everybody. We have a 10-member council. Each of the members of the council regionally organized and coordinated our engagement sessions. Of course, I stand on their shoulders. These are amazing professionals and people. My colleague, Rachelle Metatawabin, who is another person who carries a voice of lived experience on our council, without them I wouldn’t have a story to tell. So I really appreciate them. Over the last couple years, right at the onset of COVID in 2020, we started our engagements speaking with Canadians across the country from coast-to-coast-to-coast. As you can imagine with COVID, it was really difficult because we moved from in-person engagements to virtual ones, and all of the challenges logistically with that. I really want to give another shout-out to the secretariat that we work with, who has been instrumental in helping us pull together some of the data and provide these reports. Without their help, I don’t know that we would’ve been able to do it.

Over the course of two years, we spoke with around a thousand people. We asked them primarily what poverty meant to them. You might not be surprised to hear that poverty was extremely painful, is extremely painful. It’s complex. It’s individual. It’s different for everyone. It’s shameful. It’s suffocating. It’s heavy. Being poor is like serving a life sentence for a crime you didn’t commit. These are some of the senses, some of the words, and some of the feelings that we garnered from these engagements. Overall, one of the sharpest cuts for me was the overwhelming sense of invisibility, which then speaks to dignity, quality of life, and the inhumane treatment of the poor, which is actually pretty particularly poignant for this conversation. The invisibility of this demographic, especially the invisibility of them amongst the federal benefits.

We also spoke with professionals and they spoke of systemic problems, benefit program challenges, lack of cohesion amongst different rungs of government, which is a really centric issue, the municipal, provincial, and federal differences in policy, the disunity in community and across the nation, outdated and harmful policies, and shallow resourcing. So, by-and-large, we also heard of shortages in staffing. In almost every sector, around every corner we heard of this issue. We have a really big problem nationally with it. Also, of course, there were a lot of fears for the future, where we’re headed without a serious shift in how we develop and implement responses to ending poverty, and where the future might bring us. These lists are not exhaustive in any way. I couldn’t claim to carry all of the voices, but these are the senses that we picked up in our engagements and they continue to ring true.

A key take-away for me was that I was really taken aback with the level racism and discrimination throughout the nation. Being from Alberta, sadly, I’m very in tune with racism and hatred in this place, in this land. But to see it bleed through and just to see how far those tentacles reach across the nation was really alarming, and really a big challenge for us as champions in this space.

Lastly, to finish on a really good note, I was also taken aback with how many champions there are across the country. There are so many people working on this, and so many professionals, experts, and people that just want to throw their hat in the ring, and do what they can to care for people. I was very surprised to see how many people really want to see what we want to see on the council – the eradication of poverty nationally.

Elizabeth McIsaac

Thank you, Shane. That was a really great way to end that because there’s some heavy messages that you’re carrying. I think that also needs to ground for all of us the seriousness and the gravity of what we’re dealing with. So thank you for that. Sherri, I’m going to turn to you. You’re leading this work at the Community Food Centres of Canada. We know, and you know, that emergency food assistance is often the place of last resort for many, reflecting many failures in our social safety net. From the data and the evidence that you have from your work, what do we need to do? What is the federal government’s role in this? Where do we go?

Sherri Hanley

Thanks so much, Elizabeth. I want to thank my fellow panelists as well for the insights being shared so far today. Shane, some really heavy comments from you that I know are being echoed and felt across our communities. I also share the hope seeing 162 participants on the call today representing community, civil society, and government. Hopefully together we can move some things forward.

Thanks for the question, Elizabeth. I really appreciate it. I spent the last number of years working in the housing sector and I’m now in the food- and income-security sector. I think I just want to reiterate, I really do think our social safety net is failing a lot of those groups. I think the group we’re talking about today, working-age singles, people without children, are being ignored. There’s a lot of stigma. And as Jennefer was mentioning, a lot of stereotypes around expectations of what people can do.

Community Food Centres Canada is coming up on its 10th anniversary this year. Although we focus on food insecurity, we know that a lack of food isn’t because there’s a food shortage, it’s because people don’t have enough money. That’s why we’ve got the poverty action unit now, and are doing this work and have partnered with Maytree, so I want to thank you for that. I know that for a lot of government folks, data and numbers tell a story and provide evidence you often need to convince government, and what to do. One of the pieces around food insecurity in particular: there’s the data from proof, the 2021 Household Food Insecurity report this year, gave us some really telling information about the group we’re talking about today. To me, I think that this data tells us where things are not working.

First, 63% of people on social assistance are food insecure. Of those 63% of people, over half of them are severely food insecure, meaning they’re facing extreme deprivation and negative impact on their health. 40% of people who are on the Federal Employment Insurance program are food insecure. 51% of people who are working and have jobs are food insecure. So when you hear those stats and they’re numbers, they’re not telling us the lived experience, and I’ll get to that in a moment, I think that really is shocking to me, that programs that governments are running that are meant to support people in times of need are keeping people hungry and making them have some really tough decisions, and also the people who are working cannot put food on the table. So those are some numbers that are coming out and the trends aren’t getting better.

What does that mean for people? I think Shane, you touched on it a lot in terms of the stigma, the isolation, the heaviness of what it means to people. But with respect to this group of people, we’ve had some discussions with our over 350 partners across the country. Consistently, between 50 and 75% of the community members we support are either on social assistance, or are working and have income. So again, there’s a big problem here. We know that with the limited amount of money people have, they’re really being forced to make some tough choices. Coming from the housing world, I know that people cannot afford rent. They’re skipping food. They’re not getting the medication they need in order to make ends meet.

So there are some really tough decisions being made. I think those are the basics, but I think a lot of us also take for granted the ability to buy a cup of coffee when you’re out and wanting to treat yourself to a $2 coffee. For a lot of people, that’s something they just can’t do. Getting a haircut. You’re judged for getting a haircut if you’re on social assistance. How much do you spend on your haircut? Maybe you should be out getting a job and not doing what you’re doing. I think as Jennefer pointed out, a lot of the comments we hear are about working-age people. The belief is that they should be able to go and work. I think that it really isn’t that easy these days. It’s not the answer to lift a lot of people out of poverty. The recent poverty reduction reports from the National Advisory Council on Poverty are showing that it’s not working. The trends and data being shown there as reinforcing the point. But a lot of jobs today are low-wage, part-time, inconsistent, and don’t offer benefits.

So for people on social assistance, leaving social assistance often means losing your benefits, like dental and pharmacy benefits, which you may need for your overall general health. Although the income they’re receiving is grossly inadequate, it’s a stable, predictable income. You at least know what you’re getting every month. Whereas, if you go into a precarious labour market, you don’t know what kind of hours you’re getting, and so on.

We’ve had a lot of discussions with our partners lately and community members about getting a job. There are actually a lot of costs for people to go out and seek employment. If you’re living on a low income, a lot of people have made choices about where they live because it’s cheaper. But the reality is, where they live is far from the jobs that are available to them. So, they can’t afford the transportation costs, or the hours they work don’t match with transit hours. People can’t afford computers or internet to search for jobs, or to work remotely, if that’s the type of work that’s available. Uniforms, appropriate work attire, the list goes on. We’re seeing record numbers of people making really difficult choices.

What can governments do? I think we’ve really seen a gap from the federal government, in particular. It’s the order of government with the highest tax base. It’s supposed to lead our country in terms of our values. We’re seeing it, as Jennefer and others have pointed out in the report, that this group of people are being ignored and being expected to work to meet their needs, and it’s not working. I think it’s great that the federal government has the poverty reduction strategy with very clear legislated targets of reducing poverty by 50% by 2030 based on 2050 levels. But it’s really clear they’re not going to be successful in meeting those targets if they continue to ignore this group. I think it’s also going to have some generational impacts if we have a large proportion of people living in poverty and then aging. I think that’s something to be thinking about as well. So I think that the federal government needs to adopt a proposal like this one, a targeted income support for this group.

We’ve seen that targeted income supports for dedicated populations may reduce poverty amongst certain groups. The Canada child benefit has led to a 30% reduction in severe food insecurity for families with children. When a senior turns 65 and gets a guaranteed income supplement, their risk of food insecurity reduces by 50%. People are waiting to turn 65 so they can afford to eat. What does that tell us, right? I know Garima and others are going to speak more about the CWAS proposal in particular, but I really think we’ve got an urgent crisis here amongst this group.

I think that from our perspective at CFCC, we need to have a targeted income support program for this group not only to help them meet their basic needs, but also provide a buffer to people to seek employment. People want to work. They want to be part of community, and there are economic barriers to doing so. I’ll leave it there, but I think that the federal government has the resources to lead. They’ve under-invested in this group. It’s time to step up or we’re leaving people to live a life without dignity, without being able to make choices like the rest of us are able to that we take for granted.

Elizabeth McIsaac


Sherri Hanley

Thanks, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth McIsaac

Thank you, Sherri. I think looking at this question through the lens of food security puts a really sharp edge on what the experience is, so thank you for that. Garima, I’m going to turn it to you. You’ve been working on this proposal along with Mohy for the last 18 months or longer, and along with our colleagues at CFCC. Let’s come back to the proposal itself, the Canada Working-age Supplement. What is that? What is that going to do? What are you hoping the report will do? What’s next?

Garima Talwar Kapoor

Thanks, Elizabeth. And thanks everyone for joining us today. Let me start off by talking about how we undertake our work at Maytree. At Maytree, our policy work is driven by two things. A, we go where the evidence takes us. And B, we’re really driven by our values and we believe that everyone in Canada has the fundamental human right to live a life with dignity, that they should be able to live a life with dignity. The evidence and data in this space is unequivocal. Years of research from Maytree, from others in the sector, from government in of itself, has shown a persistent problem, that unattached working-age singles have the highest and deepest rates of poverty in this country.

The challenge is that politically, when we talk about poverty, political messages are often focused on the rate of poverty. “Let’s reduce the number of people who are technically in poverty.” So you see the creation of benefits like the Canada Workers Benefit or the enhancement, as was recently done in last year’s federal budget, to enhance the parameters of the CWB so that just that many more people can actually access the benefit and tip over the poverty line. The challenge is though, we need to address the depth of poverty. As my colleagues have talked about, for decades economists and policy makers, not only in this country but worldwide, have really thought about income supports relative to people’s incentives to work. So there are these massive Excel sheets where we’re trying to estimate people’s marginal effective tax rates. But what we’re doing in that, in those analyses, is artificially keeping rates low without thinking about, A, more broadly how structural changes in the labour market have not enabled work to pay. And secondly, we’re enabling poverty by not increasing income supports as the cost of living increases.

So we’ve got this challenge. What we wanted to do with CWAS was, A, disrupt how we think about poverty in this country, really disrupt the idea that people who are working-age are only worthy of a semblance of dignity if they have labour market attachment. That idea is very dated and does not reflect the current nature of the labour market. Secondly, we wanted to advance something that was practical, something that was tangible, something that was do-able, something that enabled the federal government to see itself in having a role in the solution.

My colleagues have talked about the disparate levels of social assistance across the country. I won’t go through the challenges there, but we do know as we’ve learned from benefits like the Canada child benefit, that providing baseline supports more predictable supports that top-up benefits like social assistance, which are more responsive and respond to changes in people’s life circumstances, are really helpful. So when you ask, “Well, what’s next?” I think what we really want to reinforce is that Canada’s social safety net is, in fact – a net – and that we need to strengthen all elements of our social safety net. That includes employment insurance, that includes stronger housing supports, and stronger housing regulation. But there is this gaping hole in our social safety net, and that is that unattached working-age singles are falling through each and every seed of our social safety net. The promise of the Canada Working-age Supplement is to provide that catch-all.

So we’re not advancing an idea that would streamline supports. We’re not talking about replacing other benefits. We’re talking about something that would require the federal government to do two things, A, develop a floor amount to the current Canada Workers Benefit so that it doesn’t matter how much you have in earnings before you are able to receive support, and to increase the maximum benefit so that for those people, especially people who are receiving social assistance, that they see that they not only have access to benefits through social assistance and all of the other supports that come with social assistance, but that they have access to a baseline level of support from their federal government.

There’s going to be a lot of debate in the coming weeks and months, I hope, on what the parameters of CWAS are, and, “Should this be the phase-out rate, or should that be the phase-out rate?” We really welcome those debates. Our challenge here was it was introducing a novel idea and would welcome engagement with everybody on the call, and folks across the country, to figure out how we do this, something that is practical, that is do-able and whose time has come. So I’ll leave it at that.

Elizabeth McIsaac

Great. Thank you, Garima. And thank you to all the panelists. And thank you to everybody in the audience who have been putting questions into the Q&A. I am seeing them all. We’re not going to get to all of them. We have 10 minutes left and there’s a lot of appetite for discussion, which I think speaks to Garima’s point that this is the beginning of a conversation. I think there are a couple of baseline things that would be good to deal with. Three or four different people have asked, “What does it cost? What’s it going to do to the federal budget?” So let’s just get that number out there so that we know what we’re talking about.

Garima Talwar Kapoor

In the report that we published earlier this week, there are four models, as Mohy said. Model 4 would cost, for unattached singles, $7.8 billion. This is $6 billion more than what we currently spend through the Canada Workers Benefit for unattached singles. So we’re looking at about $6 billion, which to put it into perspective, is about 1.3% of Canada’s budget, of the federal government’s budget expenditures for 2022. Given the magnitude of the problem, given the depth of poverty that unattached singles are facing, I think that the cost is something that we can actually address for people. We’re talking about 1 million people who live in very deep poverty, who are not eligible for anything through the current CWB. Through our proposal, we would not only be enhancing income supports to those with very, very low or no earnings, but also supporting those with higher income support for those with low and more moderate earnings.

Elizabeth McIsaac

So kind of following on that, there’s a question. Why did we choose to expand CWAS to individuals earning up to 50,000 per year? Why not reallocate that money to those in deepest poverty? So cut the CWAS off at the MBM and those extra dollars saved to boost the benefit for those who still qualify. Can you take us through that decision point?

Garima Talwar Kapoor

Sure. Happy to talk about that. So in our modeling, we did adjust the phase-out rate, tried to make it steeper so that it would phase out faster. And to be honest, there wasn’t a material change in the costing. So that’s issue one. Issue two, when we were going through, “Okay, here are all the things we want to cover in this new idea that we want to propose,” thinking about parameter shifts, though really important, and I know that there’s invariably going to be a question about why we didn’t change the definition of income used as it’s currently used in the Canada Workers Benefit, but those kinds of details, though incredibly important, I think are in the next phase of thinking of this. But I think initially when we did play around with the phase out so that it was steeper, but not so steep, so that there was no cliff. We still wanted a phase out and not a cliff. But when we tried to make that phase out a bit steeper, it did not materially change the cost state.

Elizabeth McIsaac

Right. There’s a question here around sort of a strategy question and I invite anyone on the panel who wants to weigh in. But what does the panel see as policy windows for getting the federal government to adopt something like CWAS or a similar policy reform at this point in time when the 2021 update to the CWB and other federal activity on poverty reduction doesn’t seem to align with the need to reach unattached adults without labor force attachment or address the inadequacy? So where is this idea going to land? Do you see any opportunity?

Sherri Hanley

I think that we’re in a place right now where Canadians are really seeing cost of living increase, and they’re seeing some real struggles across every income level. I think there might be a bit more empathy right now in terms of people living in the deepest poverty. I think we’re also coming out of COVID-19, and seeing how benefits such as CERB worked, and that there was a need to provide basic supports to people in times of need. One of the pieces that I think in speaking to a lot of folks is that people didn’t realize that people on social assistance were not eligible for any CERB support. So in Ontario, you might be getting about $800 a month to live on Ontario Works, and CERB was $2,000.

I think there’s also been a lot of support lately for people who are working on the front lines, people who are working in support-type functions, PSW, grocery store clerks, and so on. A lot of those folks are the ones we’re talking about. I think if we shift the narrative a little bit in terms of, you might be struggling and making some decisions about whether or not you purchase something that you want versus not having the ability to what you need, and I think with inflation, with coming out of public support around poverty and wanting to build back stronger, I think we’ve got a really good window and I think we’ve been missing a lot of really key folks right now in all of our social supports for the past few years, especially with COVID.

Elizabeth McIsaac

Thanks, Sherri. Does anybody else… Jennefer, did you want to jump in?

Jennefer Laidley

Sure. I mean, I agree with everything Sherri’s just said. I would just add that I think politically we’re at a really important time. We’ve got three years before the next federal election. We’ve got a liberal government that needs to distinguish itself from an official opposition with a newly elected leader who is taking a populist line primarily and is hammering them on the rising cost of living, as well they should. The federal government needs to distinguish itself, and needs to take some action. It’s kind of vacated, as we’ve been all been talking about, the feds have vacated this policy field for a long time. The levers that they do have at their discretion like the GST, that we’ve just recently heard an increase in the GST, a temporary increase in the GST, but that’s small potatoes as far as increasing income. So I think that over the next three years, we’ve got a big opportunity to really push this kind of a policy response and this kind of a proposal with the federal government.

Elizabeth McIsaac

Shane, do you want to comment at all? You’re on the poverty advisory council.

Shane Pelletier

Yeah, sure. No, I wouldn’t proclaim to know what the strategy, government relations strategy or political strategy would be, but I would say every time is the right time to advocate for people’s rights and for a humane approach to people living poor. This work isn’t just happening in a four-year cycle. This is work that a lot of you, and I, that we’ve been doing for decades, and it’s ongoing. This is another iteration of a program. I don’t know what a federal benefit might fit best in the current climate, but I would say that it does seem like we have a good opportunity now, because the urgency is so high. So now’s the time that we really, really dig in and push.

Elizabeth McIsaac

Right. Thank you. There are an abundance of questions and they’re good questions, and I’m going to let the audience or the participants out there know that we are we’ve captured all of them. The conversation is beginning. It’s not over. There are a number of technical questions around the use of the AFNI for coming off, around to what extent does this address the deep racism that Shane spoke about, how does this compare with just doing a basic income, are we actually fixing anything? These are all valid and important questions that we are working on and we are hoping to engage with you on further. So we’re at 12:58, 12:59. Obviously we should have scheduled a 6-hour webinar to get to all of the questions in any meaningful way, but it’s the start. We’re launching this paper. And it’s launching a conversation. We don’t expect anything to happen overnight with this. This is about beginning to think about a federal rule.

I want to thank all of the panelists for taking the time for joining in this conversation, helping us launch this conversation. I want to thank the participants and the audience who have spent time, your lunch hour on a Friday, to turn your attention to this. I encourage you, please download the paper. A number of your questions said, “I think this is probably in the paper.” And you’re right, it is in the paper. But not everything is in the paper. Some of this is fodder for debate and really hard debate about what we think about poverty in this country, about what we think about deserving and undeserving poverty. And so that is the conversation we want to turn our attention to.

Thank you to everyone and a special thanks to Community Food Centres of Canada who have been outstanding partners in getting this work to the finish line and thought partners and policy partners. We look forward to talking to you further. Thank you. Have a great day.


Evidence-based policy, Income security, Poverty


Recording of the Canada Working-Age Supplement launch event highlighting the report’s key findings followed by a panel discussion on the challenges and opportunities available to address the depth of poverty working-age single adults experience.