Low Income

Sex and Gender-based Analysis of this topic


In Canada, low income commonly refers to the percentage of families and individuals below the Statistics Canada Low-Income Cut-Off (LICO) [1]. Individuals and families who spend 20% or more on food, housing and clothing compared to the average family are considered low-income [2,3]. LICOs take family size and degree of urbanization into account and are updated based on changes in the consumer price index [1].  LICO is the most commonly reported measure of low income in Canada.  LICO can be measured before or after tax; however, after tax income may be a more appropriate measure of poverty as it reflects the redistributive impact of Canada’s tax/transfer system [3].

In Canada, roughly 11% of the population are considered low income, of whom 11% are female and 10% are male [4]. Among Canadians, British Columbians are most likely to live in poverty with more women (14%) than men (13%) classified as low income [1, 5]. Income is a major determinant of health, for example, approximately 28% of low-income Canadians reported poor health compared to only 6% of wealthy Canadians [6].   BC data reveals that 13% of women in the lowest income quartile have heart disease compared to only 4% of women in the highest income quartile [7]. Similar income gradients are observed for numerous other diseases.

Sex Issues

Poverty increases the risk of acute and chronic ill health, susceptibility to infectious diseases, heart disease, arthritis, stomach ulcers, migraines, mental illnesses and self-destructive coping behaviours. Low socioeconomic status is also linked with increased incidence of cervical cancer mortality and lower survival rates among of breast cancer patients [8]. Since more women than men have low incomes, they are more likely to experience poverty- related health problems. Low income can lead to ill health through various pathways including: limited access to resources necessary to attain and maintain good health (e.g. housing, food, physical activity, safe neighbourhoods, social support and health care) and increased exposure to risk factors such as smoking, physical inactivity, unhealthy foods, stress, and hazardous occupations [3, 9]. Overall, Canadian women in the richest tercile have a life expectancy of 83 years compared to 81 years for women in the poorest tercile [10]. A similar income gradient is evident in men’s life expectancy, with men in the lowest tercile having a life expectancy of 75 compared to 78 in the highest tercile [10].

Gender Issues

Data from Canada’s 2001 census show that women employees are twice as likely as men to have low weekly earnings and occupy jobs that pay a low wage [11, 12].  Low wages are often linked to low income [13]. Statistics Canada data from 2000 show that 30% of female workers compared to 18% of male workers earn less than $10 an hour [14]. There are a number of reasons why more women occupy low paying jobs. Women often forego or limit their work to fulfill care-giving duties [15], resulting in women occupying positions that are often part-time, not secure, and poorly paid [16]. As well, women often work in sectors such as health, services, teaching, clerical, and sales, which are undervalued and poorly compensated [17].


Data from the Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics in 2000 reveal that 56% of the Canadian population who are considered low-income fall within five main groups. Individuals with a work-limiting disability represent the majority of the low-income population (23%), followed by unattached 45-64yr olds (19%), recent immigrants (12%), lone parents (10%), and off-reserve Aboriginal individuals (5%) [18].  Census data from 2001 reveal the poverty rate of off-reserve Aboriginal women to be 25% compared to 17% in non-Aboriginal women [11].

The low income rate varies by age and family type. Lone mothers have the highest low income rate of all family types of 32%, compared to 10% in all other economic family groups [19]. Unattached females are disproportionately affected by low income, having an overall low-income rate of 30%. The low income rate (after tax) among unattached persons is highest in females under the age of 65 (37%) compared to males in the same age group (31%) [19].


There has been much debate about the most appropriate measurement of low income in Canada and whether the LICO is a valid measure of poverty or economic well-being [20]. It is important to note that the low income rate in off-reserve Aboriginal population underestimates the overall rate in Aboriginal Canadians, as people living in Aboriginal reserves are much more likely to be impoverished compared to those living off-reserve [3]. Further research into the issues contributing to low income among certain groups (e.g. lone-mothers and lone-fathers, Aboriginal peoples, people with disabilities, immigrants) is needed.

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