Two decades of poverty reduction politics – better for high-poverty risk groups?

In 2020, Canada achieved a historically low poverty rate with ‘only’ 6.4 percent of Canadians having an income below the official poverty measure, the Market-Basket Measure (MBM). The Dimensions of Poverty Hub shows that this number came down from 15 percent in 2012.

This is an encouraging success story for Canada’s higher-level governments, including the three successive Liberal governments who have put and kept poverty reduction on the political agenda since their election in 2015. In fact, over the past two decades all Canadian higher-level governments put poverty reduction on their political agenda, and many jurisdictions still have an ongoing poverty reduction process.

Poverty reduction is a complex task, however. Even when evidence suggests there is progress, not all groups at risk of poverty may benefit. The poverty statistics that governments use to track performance, such as those just mentioned, hide significant variation in poverty across subpopulations, with some groups experiencing a poverty rate far above the average.

Single parents and singles of working age are among such high-poverty risk groups, experiencing poverty with more than double to triple times the average poverty rate, depending on the poverty measure used. These groups often “face multiple barriers, making it harder to avoid or escape poverty” (Notten et al, 2023, p. 348).

While poverty reduction among such groups may thus be seen as a just priority, enacting effective policy for them is often “more challenging and/or costly” (p. 348). Moreover, it is possible to reduce the overall official poverty rate with these groups experiencing few to any gains as they comprise a relatively small part of the population.

Our study assesses whether the poverty disadvantage of single parents and single working-age adults declined over a period, during which governments – at least rhetorically – prioritized poverty reduction (p. 348).  

We estimate how the annual difference in poverty rates between these two high poverty risk groups and a reference group evolved between 1999 and 2017. We interpret a decline in this poverty difference as evidence that governments’ political prioritization of poverty yielded a more than proportional poverty reduction for these high poverty risk groups. Governments, in other words, did not just achieve overall poverty reductions through ‘easy’ gains.

The study statistically controls for the influence of (changes in) individual demographic and regional characteristics such as the strength of the regional economy, another known determinant of poverty. The reference group consists of a household with multiple adults of working age; it is Canada’s household type with the lowest poverty rates.

We find that the income poverty disadvantage declined for both groups (p. 384). It declined most strongly for single parents (Figure 1). Using a poverty line that increases with inflation over time (LIM-08), the disadvantage declined from 41 percentage points in 1999 to 20 percentage points in 2017. Using a poverty line that increases with the median person’s income over time (LIM), a more stringent test of poverty reduction, the decline was less strong but, with 12 percentage points, still considerable.

The poverty disadvantage of singles of working age declined with 10 percentage points for the inflation adjusted threshold (LIM-08) and with 6 percentage points for the median income threshold (LIM). Not shown in Figure 1, is that these declines were concentrated in provinces that had experienced stronger economic growth, with much smaller improvements to no change in the other provinces.

Figure 1: Poverty differences, Canada, 1999-2017, by poverty threshold

Source: SLID (1999-2011) and CIS (2012-2017). Authors’ calculations.
Notes: The poverty difference of 20 for single parent families in 2017 (LIM-08) means that the poverty rate of this group is 20 percentage points higher than that of the reference group, consisting of a household of multiple adults and no dependent children. Each poverty difference is a coefficient identifying individuals living in single parent families / as single working age adults. The confidence interval is based on bootstrapped standard errors.

These new findings are consistent with research that focused on evaluating the effects of specific poverty reduction programs in Canada. Family-friendly policies, such as expanded child benefits, have likely “played a substantive role reducing the poverty disadvantage of single-parent families”. (p.356) In contrast, research focusing on single adults of working age “have long been sidelined in social policymaking”. (p. 357)

In sum, the results in this study “support the claim that governments prioritized the inclusion of families with dependent children while the inclusion of single working-age adults was largely left to the fortunes of the economy.” (p. 348)

The research further shows that it is important to look beyond averages as smaller but highly vulnerable groups may be left out.

Dr. Geranda Notten, Professor in Comparative Public Policy, Graduate School of Public & International Affairs, University of Ottawa


Notten, G., Zohora, F. T., Plante, C., & Laforest, R. (2023). Two Decades of Poverty Reduction Politics in Canada: Better for Single-Parent Families and Single Working-Age Adults? Canadian Public Policy, 49(4), 347-361, DOI:

Notten, G., F.T. Zohora, C. Plante and R. Forest (2022), Two decades of poverty reduction politics in Canada: Better for single parent families and single working age adults?, Department of Economics, Working Paper #2203E, 1-55, DOI:

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