Working Poverty Across Canada Before and After the Pandemic

Posted on June 23, 2023
By John Stapleton

Working poverty across Canada before and after the pandemic

This resource is also available in French. Click here to access the French version.

Written by John Stapleton and Yvonne Yuan from Open Policy Ontario

Five communities are tackling big questions about working poverty in rural communities.

We know relatively little about the face of working poverty in rural areas. These five communities have come together to reduce working poverty by 5% within three years.   

Working poverty is the most pervasive form of poverty in Canada. Poverty rates for the working poor are higher than those for seniors, children, and people with disabilities, and even slightly higher than for recipients of income assistance. During COVID-19, Canada met its goal of halving the nation’s poverty rate, from 14.5% in 2015 to 6.4% in 2020. Those in the deepest poverty benefited the most.  


Working poverty and the pandemic 

However, following a period where governments spent $323 billion on income security, including $102 billion on pandemic benefits, all pandemic era benefits have now been dismantled.  

In this context, Tamarack, Open Policy Ontario, the McConnell Foundation, along with five medium- and small-sized cities (Trail, BC, population 9,000; Drumheller, Alberta, population 9,000; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, population 280,000; Winnipeg Manitoba, population 450,000; and Chatham Kent, Ontario, population 120,000) joined a cohort that would identify innovative, place-based pathways out of working poverty. 

The Ending Working Poverty cohort seeks population-level changes that do the following: 

  • Reduce the depth of working poverty within each community by 5% 
  • Improve the financial inclusion of the working poor by increasing the availability of and access to inclusive alternative financial products 
  • Increase the number of partnerships at the community level to improve financial empowerment, employment, and training opportunities  
  • Develop data collection strategies to understand the individual, community, and cross-community impacts  
  • Empower and engage working poor individuals as leaders at all levels of the project; and, 
  • Describe strategies that might be adapted throughout Canada

Contrast in cities: how our richest urban areas are also our poorest  

From 2011 to 2019, the Metcalf Foundation released three reports on the Working Poor in the Toronto Region. These reports (along with a report by the Canadian Centre on Policy Alternatives in Vancouver and one from Montreal’s Centraide), revealed much about working poverty in some of Canada’s largest cities.  (See sources below.)

We learned that a large cadre of urban professionals in each city needs an almost equal cohort of low-paid people to serve them coffee and food, walk their dogs, tend their gardens, mind their children, and clean their offices. Hence why our richest cities are also our poorest cities. 

We concocted a riddle: “What’s the difference between Downtown Toronto and Downton Abbey?” Answer: “At Downton Abbey, the working poor were able to live there.” 

We learned that working poor men slightly outnumber women, that working poverty is highly racialized, and that our suburbs house more working poor than inner cities. We found that the working poor often make much longer public transit trips to get to work. We learned that new immigrants are more likely to be working poor in general than second and subsequent generations. We discovered that Black individuals in the Toronto Region are more likely to be working poor in subsequent generations than new immigrants. 


Working poverty in smaller centres is different from big cities 

Despite the body of understanding these studies have built, we know relatively little about poverty in smaller centres, except that they have lower counts of working poor. We speculated that they had smaller populations of professionals that required low paid service workers. We reasoned that they have fewer jobs to offer in the first place along with more difficult access to public transit. But we did not really know how working poverty differed between large and small centres.  

Our five Ending Working Poverty cohort communities are drawing on their local understanding of this complex issue to help us tackle some big questions around how the face of working poverty in smaller centres is quite different than in big cities: 

  • Drumheller, AB is a tourist town with a housing shortage 
  • Trail, BC is a mining town whose economy centres mineral extraction 
  • Saskatoon, SK has a university and health centre economy 
  • Winnipeg, MB is a capital city and home to thousands of Indigenous youth 
  • Chatham-Kent, ON is on a major transportation route and has both an agricultural and automobile manufacturing economy 

In Drumheller, working poverty is partly caused by the seasonal basis of the tourist industry while in both Drumheller and Trail, working poverty is more traditional in the sense that women remain in pink collar low-paid work. In Saskatoon and Winnipeg, there is more Indigenous working poverty than immigrant or racialized poverty and full-time full-year workers at minimum wages live on incomes below their respective poverty lines. In Chatham Kent, the working poor are more likely to be farm workers and those working on the periphery of the automobile supply chain.  

As Tamarack, Open Policy, McConnell and these five communities continue to unpack working poverty in Canada, we have learned that there are multiple narratives of working poverty across Canada, as well as multiple solutions for raising incomes.  

For larger cities, we know that combatting racism, regulating the cost of rental housing, improving and lowering the costs of public transit, and raising wages are critical. These solutions will also help smaller centres.  

But what happens in small communities when public transit is not available? Or when the whiteness of communities means that there is little to no racialized poverty? Or that childcare solutions are not available? Can we build a shared narrative of working poverty when – in some centres – the most urgent problem is good employment for Indigenous youth?  

What can we say when some provinces (BC, Alberta, and Ontario) ensure that people working full-time full-year are out of poverty, while others (Saskatchewan and Manitoba) have taxation and minimum wage laws that keep full-time workers in poverty. Can we share a narrative when more males comprise the working poor in large centres, but more women are working in poverty in smaller communities? 

This is our challenge. Over the next two years we will continue to work toward a more nuanced, truthful and complete story of working poverty. 


Overcoming challenges in the five centres 

Drumheller, AB

A founding member of the Alberta Living Wage Network, Drumheller plans to promote the launch of their 2022 Living Wage calculation while engaging with local businesses and new partners more deeply outside of the helping professions. 

Trail, BC

In Trail, according to Project Specialist Heather Glenn-Dergousoff from the Skills Centre, “Being part of the Ending Working Poverty initiative has built engagement and excitement within our community. It has re-engaged and invigorated local service providers and frontline workers to come to the table and be part of this great work.” 

Saskatoon, SK

In Saskatoon, a big idea they will explore is how we can talk about and address asset- and wealth-building differently, noting that intergenerational wealth transfer is not a reality for many people living in poverty. In the meantime, their team has been successful in calling for and securing downtown internet access which will be of great assistance to low-income workers in that city. 

Winnipeg, MB

In Winnipeg, with a vision of aligning the Indigenous youth workforce with Winnipeg's demographics while recognizing that it is very expensive to start a job, the project team is creating culturally safe workplace conditions where Indigenous young people have equitable access to jobs, ongoing training, and wrap-around supports (mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, and financial) that support successful transitions from pre-employment into ongoing employment. 

Chatham-Kent, ON

Chatham-Kent is developing strategies and opportunities for older adults returning to employment, for entrepreneurs to launch and grow their businesses, and to invest in entrepreneurship training directed at traditionally economically marginalized populations. 

Alongside the Ending Working Poverty cohort, TD Bank and Tamarack are co-hosting a Working Group that includes people with lived/living experience and non-profits from Chatham-Kent and Drumheller, as well as from Bruce-Grey, Ontario and Vancouver. Together, they are exploring barriers and solutions that mainstream financial institutes, like TD Bank, can contribute to increasing the financial inclusion of the working poor. 

While no one organization or government can end working poverty, the collective impact approach at the local level provides leverage to make changes through government, business, the social sector along with individual actions. The Ending Working Poverty initiative seeks to bring all sectors together locally to reduce working poverty in five communities by 5% in three years.   


Concluding thoughts

It is very clear that when a few of us wrote about working poverty in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, we were pursuing a narrative of urban culture and large and diverse big city economies.  

The urban story is part of the picture but is not the whole picture. The work of the Ending Working Poverty cohort over the next two years is to add to the unpainted areas of this important Canadian canvas and find innovative ways to meaningfully reduce working poverty in these unique communities.  

Stay tuned!  


Read more:

Rural, Poverty Reduction Strategy, CRP Blogs, Homepage Blog, working poverty

John Stapleton

By John Stapleton

John Stapleton is a writer, instructor and a former Innovation Fellow with the Metcalf Foundation. He worked for the Ontario Government for 28 years in the areas of social assistance policy and operations and was Research Director for the Task Force on Modernizing Income Security for Working-Age Adults in Toronto. John teaches on public policy for community advocates and is extensively published in local and national media.

Related Posts