Features  Seniors: Aging below the poverty line

Twice as many elderly Canadian women as men are living below the poverty line, despite government funding designed to improve the conditions of those disproportionately affected by old-age poverty, according to Seniors on the Margins, a 2006 study.

Nicole Dang, an Alberta social worker, said most seniors are not aware of how to access funding.

“So many [seniors] are afraid of the bureaucracy. It’s a big deal to phone a 1-800 number,” said Dang, who helps seniors with disabilities and immigrants navigate the network of provincial grants, since federal programs like the Old Age Security (OAS) and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) barely provide enough for subsistence living.

The OAS and GIS provide an income of only about $13,700 to single seniors – meaning that unattached seniors without access to other funds live $300 below the poverty line. This is especially problematic for divorced women, who often do not claim a portion of their former spouse’s pension, despite being legally entitled.

Women also tend to have lower retirement incomes because working women’s wages are on average lower than men. In 2008, 90 per cent of financial aid applicants from single-parent families were women.

“When you’re on a fixed income, everything counts,” Dang said, noting that some seniors even stop taking their medication because they feel they can’t afford it.

Dang said she relied on the Alberta provincial grants to support her clients, but in Quebec, the Ministry of Employment and Social Solidarity (MESS) does not have any specific programs for these disadvantaged seniors, and claims that the federal programs such as are sufficient.

Dang pointed to the ineffectiveness government awareness campaigns for available programs.

“If they know about these [programs], it’s through personal contacts, through the community – ‘Oh, Mrs. Wong gets this,’ – it’s their only source of education and awareness,” she said. “I could just give you example after example of what they don’t know about.”

In 2004, 300,000 Canadian seniors eligible for the GIS did not apply, according to the a 2006 study by the National Advisory Commission on Aging (NACA) – and without the GIS, seniors are ineligible to apply for a host of other government benefits.

The NACA issued several recommendations to federal and provincial governments in its report. These included raising the GIS to above the low-income cut-off, reducing under-subscription of eligible seniors, ensuring automatic and compulsory benefit-rights sharing after divorce or legal separation, and providing education and English or French language classes for older immigrants at no cost.

In their 2008 budget, the Conservative government increased monthly benefits available under the GIS, and created a one-time application for the GIS, so long as income taxes are filed every year.