Status of Women Canada

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List of Charts
List of Tables
Executive Summary
Project Outline
Women, the CAP and the CHST
The Value of a Benchmark Profile
Demographic Profile: Women on Social Assistance
Labour Force Profile: Women on Social Assistance
Income Profile: Women on Social Assistance
Estimated Impact of Cuts to Social Assistance

Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data

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   Research Directorate
   Status of Women Canada
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   Ottawa, ON K1A 1C3

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Women and the CHST:

A Profile of Women Receiving Social Assistance in 1994

Katherine Scott
Centre for International Statistics
Canadian Council on Social Development

The research and publication of this study were funded by Status of Women Canada's Policy Research Fund. This document expresses the views and opinions of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official policy or opinion of Status of Women Canada or the Government of Canada.

March 1998

Status of Women Canada is committed to ensuring that all research produced through the Policy Research Fund adheres to high methodological, ethical, and professional standards. The research must also make a unique, value-added contribution to current policy debates, and be useful to policy-makers, researchers, women's organizations, communities, and others interested in the policy process. Each paper is anonymously reviewed by specialists in the field, and comments are solicited on:
  • the accuracy, completeness and timeliness of the information presented;
  • the extent to which the analysis and recommendations are supported by the methodology used and the data collected;
  • the original contribution that the report would make to existing work on this subject, and its usefulness to equality-seeking organizations, advocacy communities, government policy-makers, researchers and other target audiences.
Status of Women Canada thanks those who contributed to this peer review process.

Status of Women Canada's Policy Research Fund was instituted in 1996 to support independent, nationally relevant policy research on gender equality issues. In order to determine the structure and priorities of the Policy Research Fund, Status of Women Canada held consultations from March to May 1996 with a range of national, regional and local women's organizations, researchers and research organizations, community, social service and professional groups, other levels of government, and individuals interested in women's equality. Consultation participants indicated their support for the Fund to address both long-term emerging policy issues as well as urgent issues, and recommended that a small, non-governmental external committee would play a key role in identifying priorities, selecting research proposals for funding, and exercising quality control over the final research papers.

As an interim measure during the fiscal year 1996-1997, consultation participants agreed that short-term research projects addressing immediate needs should be undertaken while the external committee was being established to develop longer-term priorities. In this context, policy research on issues surrounding the Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST) and access to justice were identified as priorities.

On June 21, 1996, a call for research proposals on the impact of the CHST on women was issued. The proposals were assessed by Status of Women Canada and external reviewers. The research projects selected for funding in this area focus on women receiving social assistance, economic security for families with children, women with disabilities, the availability and affordability of child care services, women and health care, and women's human rights.

The call for research proposals on access to justice was issued on July 18, 1996. Also assessed by Status of Women Canada and external reviewers, the selected policy research projects in this area include a study of abused immigrant women, lesbians, women and civil legal aid, family mediation, and the implications for victims of sexual harassment of the Supreme Court ruling in Béliveau St. Jacques.

The objective of Status of Women Canada's Policy Research Fund is to enhance public debate on gender equality issues and contribute to the ability of individuals and organizations to participate more effectively in the policy development process. We believe that good policy is based on good policy research. We thank all the authors for their contribution to this objective.

A complete listing of the research projects funded by Status of Women Canada on issues surrounding the Canada Health and Social Transfer and access to justice is provided at the end of this report.

This report was prepared by the following staff of the Centre for International Statistics at the Canadian Council on Social Development:

Katherine Scott, Senior Research and Policy Associate
Clarence Lochhead, Director of the Centre for International Statistics
Kevin Lee, Research Associate
Spyridoula Tsoukalas, Research Assistant
Angela Gibson-Kierstead, Research Assistant

The introduction of the Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST) represents a fundamental change in the administration and funding of social programs in Canada and will have a significant impact on the lives of women who benefit from these programs. The two central concerns expressed about the introduction of the CHST are that it represents considerably lower levels of funding than the transfer arrangements it replaces and that it eliminates several important national standards for social assistance and services. This research paper presents a detailed income profile of women on social assistance - one group that will surely be affected by the introduction of the CHST - and estimates the impact of potential cuts to social assistance on the incomes of recipients. This profile, based on income statistics for 1994 - a year before the implementation of the CHST - provides important baseline data on the economic circumstances of women on social assistance. With this information, it will be possible to monitor the incomes of women over time as provincial governments introduce program changes in response - partly or wholly - to federal cutbacks and the elimination of national conditions. The authors recommend that subsequent income profiles be done every two years; the next survey would examine women's incomes in 1996, a year after the first substantial reduction in federal transfers under the CHST.

The introduction of the Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST) represents a fundamental change in the administration and funding of social programs in Canada and will have a significant impact on the lives of women who benefit from these programs. Announced in the 1995 federal budget, the CHST replaces the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP) and Established Program Financing (EPF). The two central concerns expressed about the introduction of the CHST are that it represents considerably lower levels of funding than the transfer arrangements it replaces and that it eliminates several important national conditions for social assistance and services.

Since its introduction in 1995, the CHST has resulted in a 15 per cent decrease in federal transfers intended for health, postsecondary education and social assistance and services to the provinces. The value of the total entitlement transferred to all provinces - a combination of cash and tax points - has fallen from $29.7 billion in 1995-96 to $25.1 billion in 1997-98. Specifically, the federal government has reduced the cash transfer by roughly $6.3 billion over this period. The cash transfer was set to fall another $1.4 billion by 1999-2000, but the federal government announced in April 1997 that they would freeze the cash floor at its 1997-98 level of $12.5 billion.

This study provides a starting point or benchmark to track the impact of welfare reform on women receiving social assistance. It offers a comprehensive portrait of women on social assistance in 1994 - the year before the announcement of the CHST - including their demographic, labour market and income characteristics and taking into account differences based on age, family status, the presence of dependent children, ethnicity, immigration status, ability, housing tenure and region.

In 1994, 14 per cent of non-elderly adult women - 1,280,000 women - were members of families that received social assistance for all or part of the year. The largest group of women receiving social assistance were married or common-law women living with a male partner (43 per cent, or 544,000). Of this group, 297,000 (55 per cent) had children living at home. The second largest group of adult female social assistance recipients was lone-parent mothers (27 per cent of all women on social assistance, or 339,000). An additional 16 per cent of female social assistance recipients (202,000) were living as unattached individuals, i.e., they were living alone or with other non-relatives. Roughly 1 in 10 adult women on social assistance (121,000) were never-married adult children living with one or both parents, and 6 per cent are in other family arrangements.

There are many economically vulnerable groups of women who depend on provincial social assistance programs. Lone mothers, young women under the age of 25 and unattached older women aged 55 to 64 years have higher rates of social assistance receipt. Mothers of young children, especially lone mothers, are also at high risk for relying on social assistance.

Social assistance receipt is roughly the same across Canada, with the exception of the Prairie provinces where all women, regardless of family type, have lower rates. Women from visible minority groups do not have a higher incidence of social assistance receipt; in fact, as a group, they have lower rates than the non-visible minority population. While women's immigration status is linked to the likelihood of being a social assistance recipient, this trend is only evident among fairly recent immigrants who face significant barriers to labour market participation. Women with disabilities are also much more likely than women without disabilities to rely on social assistance.

To most people, social assistance tends to be perceived as an all-or-nothing state. Reality is much more complicated. Forty-one per cent of women who received social assistance income in 1994 had paid employment at some point during the year, while 59 per cent did not do paid work. These statistics demonstrate that social assistance receipt is transitional. In any given year, many women receiving social assistance have a mix of income transfers and earnings.

In 1994, women living in families that reported social assistance income received an average of $7,773. Lone-parent families received the highest average amount, while unattached women received the lowest. For some women, social assistance income makes up a very large share of their total family income: for unattached individuals, social assistance income in 1994 represented 72 per cent of total income; and for lone-parent mothers, social assistance made up 54 per cent of total family income. On the other hand, among married women with children, social assistance income in 1994 represented a significant but relatively lower (25 per cent) share of total family income. Clearly, some women live in families in which receipt of social assistance is a short-term income source. The high share of social assistance income among unattached individuals and lone-parent mothers is clearly related to family context and the problems faced by many single-earner families or households.

Poverty rates among women receiving social assistance are considerably higher than the rates among women in general. For example, while the overall rate of poverty of non-elderly adult women was 17 per cent, it was 55 per cent for those who received social assistance. The higher rates of poverty among social assistance recipients are especially pronounced among unattached women (90 per cent poverty rate) and lone-parent mothers (82 per cent).

In dollar terms, cuts to social assistance would have the biggest impact on lone parents, followed by married women with children, adult children, married women with no children and unattached women. On average, female social assistance recipients faced with a 10 per cent reduction would see their benefits decrease by an average of $777; a 20 per cent cut would decrease their benefits by $1,555. For lone parents, a 10 per cent cut to social assistance would translate into an average income loss of $946 per year, and a 20 per cent cut would result in a $1,893 reduction in annual income. Overall, a 10 per cent cut to social assistance - assuming no change in the pattern of usage - would result in an increase of 26,000 poor women on social assistance, while a cut of 20 per cent would increase the number of poor women receiving social assistance by 42,000. The biggest increase in number of poor women would be among lone parents, followed by unattached women.

Changes to provincial social assistance will clearly affect the economic security of women who currently rely on the program and of many others who may be in need of income support in the future. In the face of a labour market that is increasingly characterized by the growth of "good" jobs and "bad" jobs, women remain economically vulnerable. What this profile of social assistance recipients reveals is that women who are not able to combine incomes with other family members are at very high risk of living in poverty. Lone-parent mothers are especially vulnerable to this unstable environment of low-wage employment and impoverished public income security programs.

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Last updated: September 9, 1998