Blog: Poverty in Canada: A Progress Report

April 19, 2021


One in nine Canadians lives in poverty—or 11% of the overall population. That’s according to the latest (and first) report from the National Advisory Council on Poverty. The good news is that this rate is trending downwards. The bad news is that other poverty indicators, such as food security, unmet housing needs, and low literacy, suggest increased hardship for marginalized people living in low-income.

Opportunity for All

The recently convened advisory council was formed as part of Canada’s 2018 poverty reduction strategy: Opportunity for All. The council’s purpose is to monitor government progress on poverty reduction efforts. These efforts aim to reduce poverty by 20% by 2020 and 50% by 2030 (in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals).

The council consists of 10 members: six general members, two members with lived experience, one focused on children’s issues, and one chairperson from across six provinces and one territory. It is of particular interest to ESPC and the local Edmonton community that one of the general members is based here in the city—Bent Arrow Executive Director Cheryl Whiskeyjack. A council member who can speak to the issues that affect our community is incredibly valuable on the national stage.

The report summarizes the council’s review of government progress towards its poverty targets, amplifies the voices of those with lived experience, and recommends improvements to poverty reduction efforts. It does all of these things in a very digestible, humble manner that notes successes and, more importantly, limitations based on information collected and shared.

Themes throughout the report include:

  • the need for disaggregated data,
  • the impacts of COVID-19, and
  • ongoing barriers faced by marginalized communities.

Data Needs

Although Canada’s poverty rate has steadily decreased,[1] understanding how populations are affected by intersecting experiences of poverty remains limited due to a lack of disaggregated data (that is, data that can be separated into discrete categories).

According to 2016 census data, the poverty rate for racialized individuals (20.6%) was nearly double that of non-racialized individuals (10.6%). However, the unique experiences of (what the council refers to as) subpopulations, not to mention cross-population identities, cannot be captured by current data measures. According to the council,

disaggregated data is not available on any of the indicators tracked under the Poverty Reduction Strategy for Indigenous people living on reserve or LGBTQ2S individuals. A limited amount of data is available on immigrants, Indigenous people living off reserve, persons with disabilities and racialized populations. (p. 55)

These are populations at higher risk of experiencing multi-dimensional poverty, but high-quality data is not yet available to help guide appropriate poverty reduction efforts.

The report offers suggestions to improve disaggregated data collection beyond age and sex. Changes would include finding ways to reach underserved populations for survey participation, increasing sample sizes for smaller population groups, and adding questions to allow for meaningful data. Though necessary steps, these would all require input and collaboration with representatives from impacted groups.


Pandemic response measures caused an abrupt interruption to the council’s work and limited its ability to complete cross-country engagement sessions. However, before the work was suspended, council members spoke to individuals, stakeholders, and service providers in British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Representatives from Boyle Street, EndPoverty Edmonton, and C5 took part in Edmonton’s stakeholder consultation sessions.

Participant statements are peppered throughout the report, providing a lived-experience lens to the broader policy discussion. Individuals living in poverty faced additional challenges in accessing support during the pandemic through benefit and service online navigation—due to limited digital literacy and the need to access technology and the internet. Others faced challenges in accessing shelter—whether due to reduced capacity, limited staff, or unlawful evictions.

Ongoing Barriers

Despite decreased poverty rates, marginalized groups that face poverty continue to come up against barriers in accessing support. Though the experience of poverty varies between each individual, there are also common challenges.

Some of the struggles identified by participants include:

  • lack of choice or having to choose between essential needs (such as paying for rent or groceries),
  • long wait times to access resources, and
  • access to addictions and mental health supports.

Existing programs (such as housing and child care benefits and food support) are often inadequate to meet individuals’ needs and fail to improve household circumstances. Recipients reported feeling that these programs merely maintain the status quo. Therefore, programs must ensure agency and choice for clients and recipients and include wraparound supports to address intersectional challenges faced by individuals living in poverty.


The council shares five recommendations for government action to maintain progress on poverty reduction efforts. These include:

  • Focus on areas where progress is not improving—food security, housing and homelessness, literacy and numeracy, and the poverty gap;
  • Collaborate with Indigenous nations to develop measures and strategies that address issues specific to their communities;
  • Improve data collection strategies and include questions that lead to purposeful data disaggregation;
  • Ensure all strategies, policies, and programs are developed, implemented, and reviewed with an equity lens; and
  • Collaborate with provinces and territories to improve the social safety net and develop a streamlined and low barrier system.

Poverty reduction efforts cannot be framed as a one-size-fits-all approach. What’s needed is more investment in the types of supports that are proven to work—like affordable or supportive housing, affordable child care, and access to culturally appropriate programming. These are initiatives supported by ESPC—ones that we will continue to advocate for as social needs evolve and governments change.

Overall, some of the poverty targets set by the government have seen progress. However, uncertain outcomes of the pandemic will undoubtedly create set backs in some areas and maintain ongoing challenges in others. It’s up to the government to enact policies and measures that will result in support that can be applied evenly to all those who need it the most.  

To read more, check out some our latest publications online:

Affordable Housing

Child Care and Child Poverty

Race-Based Data


[1] The report presents data from 2015–2018. The poverty rate decreased from 14.5% in 2015 to 11% in 2018. Statistics Canada shows that the poverty rate has continued to decrease and was down to 10.1% in 2019. 

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