The Poverty of Unattached Senior Women and the Canadian Retirement Income System: A Matter of Blame or Contradiction?

Article excerpt

Structural and financial inadequacy of Canada's retirement income system, especially with respect to income support benefits (i.e. Old Age Security), are often identified as one major reason unattached senior women experience poverty. While it may be compelling to blame low benefit levels and changing eligibility requirements, particularly because 'crisis' policy discourses have influenced questionable restructuring over time (i.e. the clawback), this paper argues that this is too simplistic of an account of the relationship between these women's poverty and the retirement income system. Other broad social-structural factors are at play in women's lives that have the potential to disentitle their access to income security in old age. Specifically, the mismatch between women's economic situations over the life course and their claims to pension or retirement savings income is presented as an important reason for why many women are still poor despite policy provisions for their retirement.

Key words: poverty, unattached senior women, retirement income, policy discourse

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Canada's retirement income system consists of three levels: income supports benefits (Old Age Security), social insurance (Canada Pension Plan) and occupational pension plans and registered retirement savings plans. As a system that expanded with the evolution of the post-war welfare state, it was designed to provide income security to elderly persons who may experience economic risks associated with age related factors such as compulsory retirement and health problems. Despite these intentions, many senior citizens are still poor. According to recent Census data, more than 600,000 Canadians over the age of 65 were living in low income in the year 2000. More unattached senior women live in low income than unattached senior men (approximately 428,300 compared to just over 173,000, respectively) (Statistics Canada, 2003).

The inadequacy of Old Age Security is often identified as one major reason behind the poverty experienced by unattached senior women. This blaming of the first level of Canada's retirement income system is not surprising, especially in view of the 'crisis' policy discourses surrounding population aging and the federal debt that have influenced questionable restructuring of income support benefits over time (i.e. the clawback). However, this is not an accurate portrayal of the relationship between these women's poverty and the retirement income system. It is the argument of this paper that other, broad social-structural factors inhibit women's realization of economic security through the second and especially third level of the system. Across their life course, women overwhelmingly experience occupational segregation, income disparity, and unpaid work responsibilities prior to old age. These significant barriers impede their access to suitable pensions and/or their ability to save for their future economic security through occupational pension plans or retirement savings plans.

In exploring the relationship between the poverty of unattached (widowed, divorced/ separated or ever single) senior women and Canada's retirement income system, the first section of this paper provides a brief description of the structure and provisions of the three levels of the system. Attention is drawn to the persistence of poverty among senior women and how particular discourses, sometimes contradictory, have influenced restructuring of the system in the second section. In the third section, I describe social-structural factors at play in women's lives and show how they have the potential to disentitle them to economic security through the second and third levels of the retirement income system. This discussion demonstrates that the mismatch between women's economic situations over their life course and their claims to retirement income security is an important reason why they are still poor despite policy provisions for their retirement. …