Poverty and economic insecurity among B.C. seniors is growing, according to a study released last week by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).
After rapid declines over the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, seniors’ poverty rose from a low of 2.2 per cent in 1996 to 12.7 per cent in 2014 (the most recent year data is available).
“We often see stories that pit generations against one another, with seniors described as a homogenous group of well-off retirees,” said lead author Iglika Ivanova, an economist at the CCPA-B.C. “Our research shows this isn’t the case.”
“While B.C. seniors are doing okay on average, looking only at the averages misses the big picture of income and wealth inequality,” she added.
While seniors have higher average wealth than working-age families, a closer look reveals that this average is driven up by a wealthy few. The poorest 20 per cent of senior households in Canada had a median wealth of only $15,000 in 2012, while for the top 20 per cent it was over $1.6 million.
According to the study, the rise in seniors’ poverty is mainly driven by the 28 per cent of seniors who live alone.
Single women face a particularly high risk of economic insecurity in old age, with one-third of them living below the poverty line. Ivanova says the higher risk of poverty for women is driven by gender inequality in the job market, which translates into unequal pension income in old age.
“The typical senior woman in B.C. receives 21 per cent less income from the Canada Pension Plan than the typical man,” she explained. “Women are also less likely to have access to private retirement income, including employer-sponsored pensions and RRSPs, and those who do receive 45 per cent less on average than men.”
The study also found that housing affordability and low vacancy rates are a big concern for seniors who rent.
“Increasingly unaffordable rents affect more seniors than might be expected,” said Ivanova. “One in five seniors’ households in B.C. (19 per cent) rents and therefore faces the same challenges associated with low vacancy rates and an increasingly unaffordable rental market that working-age renters do.”
The CCPA report recommends a number of solutions, including a poverty reduction plan, increased public investment in home and community care, further expansion of the Canada Pension Plan and addressing the gender-wage gap to make sure today’s working-age women do not face an elevated risk of poverty when they become seniors.
Earlier this year, Burns Lake received a $10,500 age-friendly grant that will allow the village to hire a consultant to complete a seniors’ housing feasibility study. The feasibility study will then be used to attract developers and non-profit organizations that would consider constructing new housing in Burns Lake.
It is estimated that 20 per cent of residents are over 55 years of age in the Lakes District, a percentage that is expected to increase.
“Seniors’ housing is going to become more of an issue as baby boomers come into the fray,” said Val Anderson, Burns Lake’s economic development officer. “We have to make sure that housing is available.”