Despite federal, provincial, and territorial governments devoting a lot of effort on plans to reduce poverty in recent years, too many Canadians continue to struggle to meet their basic daily needs on incomes that fall far below the poverty line. And, among all household groups, single persons without dependants are most likely to find themselves in these dire circumstances. Working-age singles constitute the largest proportion of beneficiaries on social assistance, and they are three times as likely to live in poverty as the average Canadian. The average income of singles living in deep poverty is less than $10,000 a year, which includes social assistance benefits. Yet, they have been overlooked in social policy reforms for several decades and in many ways remain the “forgotten poor.”

This report presents the findings of extensive research about employable singles on social assistance undertaken by Toronto Employment and Social Services, in partnership with the Ontario Centre for Workforce Innovation. Drawing on data from 69,000 singles who were receiving social assistance in Toronto in 2016, and 51 interviews with randomly selected participants, the report highlights these individuals’ characteristics, their complex needs, and the barriers they face in moving off social assistance and into employment. Complementing the quantitative analysis, the interviews provide important insights into the daily realities of participants’ lives and their journeys on and off assistance.

The report indicates that, contrary to common belief, singles on social assistance are not a homogenous group of young men. For instance, 38 percent of them were women and 38 percent were 45 years of age, or older. Men under the age of 30 accounted for less than 20 percent of the cases. Education levels varied greatly, as did the immigration background of those on assistance. Notably, about a third had not completed high school, but as many as 30 percent had post-secondary credentials of some kind. Naturalized Canadian citizens and permanent residents represented 43 percent of the singles caseload, the same proportion as those born in the country.

One of the key issues highlighted by the report is the fact that public income supports for single individuals living in poverty — in the form of social assistance, tax credits and supplementary benefits — are considerably less generous than those for families. Unlike the many lone parents who have been helped to move out of poverty through targeted programs and child benefits, singles have minimal access to income supports beyond modest social assistance payments. Interview participants described the difficult trade-offs they made between meeting essential needs and other living expenses. They pointed to malnourishment and deteriorating physical and mental health, not to mention the stigma and social isolation, that resulted from spells on social assistance.

Singles on social assistance also reported multiple barriers to employment. The most common reasons cited were poor health, a lack of education/skills, limited transportation options, and insufficient Canadian work experience. All of this underscores the importance of better understanding their diverse circumstances and challenges to be able to provide public services tailored to their needs. The report’s findings provide valuable information not only to policy-makers in Toronto, but also across Canada, as the increasing number of singles on social assistance and the limited financial support available to them are nation-wide concerns.

To follow up on this research, the Institute for Research on Public Policy asked three experts to comment on the findings and the broader implications for social policy reform, in particular how policy-makers at all levels of government could better help reduce deep poverty in Canada.

Sherri Torjman, social policy consultant and policy associate with Maytree, has long advocated for a fundamental “reformulation” of the country’s patchwork social safety net for working-age adults. She points out that, in the last few decades, tremendous progress has been made lifting families out of poverty, mainly thanks to decades of improvements to the Canada Child Benefit. However, in her view, progress stalled when it came to tackling the complex needs of working-age adults, especially those of singles on social assistance who are often stuck behind the “welfare wall.” She puts forth three major policy-reform options: (1) a redesign of Employment Insurance; (2) an expansion of the Canada Workers Benefit to provide an income guarantee to low-income workers and boost their take-home earnings; and (3) a “big bang” rebuild of all income-support programs. She also stresses the need to provide more diverse individualized support services for the most vulnerable.

Alain Noël, professor of political science at the Université de Montréal, argues that the focus of social policy in the last 20 years in member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has been to reform the welfare state to deal with the new social risks associated with increasingly polarized labour markets and less stable dual-earner family arrangements. As a result, policy-makers’ attention in redesigning income support programs has leaned towards children, work-family conciliation, and labour market integration. He argues that those living alone in poverty were in the blind spot of this “social investment” drive, and that this contributed to maintaining very low welfare incomes for single adults. For instance, Canadian provinces remain in the bottom tier of OECD governments in terms of the adequacy of social assistance income for employable singles relative to median income. While Professor Noël agrees the post-COVID-19 environment may provide policy-makers an opportunity to address long-standing income security gaps, he cautions that there are considerable political risks in betting on new, large-scale, basic income programs as advocated by some. Instead, he encourages multi-pronged solutions focused on lifting people out of deep poverty by significantly increasing social assistance incomes, and providing more supportive employment and social services to those facing multiple challenges.

In a similar vein, Ron Kneebone, professor of economics at the University of Calgary, opines that for decades, Canadian public policies to fight poverty have been driven by politically popular campaigns centered on seniors and families with children. He argues that with single people now making up the largest group of reported households in the census, and singles being disproportionately represented among the ranks of the poor in the country, it’s time for policy-makers to shift the focus of their efforts from simply reducing the poverty rate overall to specifically addressing the problem of deep poverty among singles and its consequences. Professor Kneebone calls not only for a significant increase in social assistance benefits for them, but also for annual cost-of-living adjustments to be made on the basis of changes in rental costs — housing being the most significant affordability challenge for those living in deep poverty.