Criminalization of Poverty in Canada
by OWJN, July 2008
What is Poverty?
In Canada, poverty is commonly defined by the low income cut-offs (LICOs) established by Statistics Canada. LICOs represent the poverty line in Canada and “convey the income level at which a family may be in straitened circumstances because it has to spend a greater proportion of its income on necessities rather than the average family of similar size.” The after-tax LICO in 2005 for a single person in an urban area of more than 500,000 people was $17,219, while the line was drawn at $32,556 for a family in the same urban area. In Toronto, nearly one in four households has an income lower than the LICO.
The United Nations Statistics Division similarly defines “poverty line” as “an income level that is considered minimally sufficient to sustain a family in terms of food, housing, clothing, medical needs, and so on.” The United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights provides a broader definition of poverty: “a human condition characterized by the sustained or chronic deprivation of the resources, capabilities, choices, security and power necessary for the enjoyment of an adequate standard of living and other civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.” Furthermore, “economic deprivation – lack of income – is a standard feature of most definitions of poverty. But this in itself does not take account of the myriad of social, cultural and political aspects of the phenomenon. Poverty is not only deprivation of economic or material resources but a violation of human dignity too.”
From the above definitions of poverty, it is clear that poverty is pervasive and difficult to escape. Poverty affects every element of a person’s life by restricting their choices and chances. Poverty can mean anything from having a daily struggle to pay the bills, to being unable to afford to feed yourself or your family, to being homeless. Living in poverty may also include receiving social assistance. The Canadian Council on Social Development suggests that most people at or below the LICO are on some type of social assistance and notes that “low-paying and precarious jobs, particularly part-time jobs, just do not provide enough income to replace even low social assistance benefits.” Poverty and homelessness are more than mere economic problems ‚Äì they are social problems created and maintained by social, economic and political systems.
Poverty as a Social Problem
Canada has an individualistic culture that promotes the idea that individuals who work hard advance. This cultural idea is reinforced by the myth that people deserve their lot in life; the myth that the poor deserve to be poor and that the rich deserve to be rich. To compound the problems that poor individuals and families face, the Canadian Council on Social Development states that there is growing public indifference to the needs of the very poor and marginalized, in addition to a toxic “punish the poor” mentality. Social myths affect individuals, and they also affect society. These widely accepted myths inform social policy and lead to political inaction on issues of poverty. Poverty is a social problem that persists due to the social, political and economic culture.
Criminalization of Poverty and Homelessness
Recently in Canada there has been a rise in poverty and homelessness, particularly in large urban centers like Toronto, where the disparities between the rich and the poor are ever increasing. One of the ways that the government has attempted to deal with poverty, including homelessness, has been to criminalize it.
The criminalization of poverty involves declaring certain acts that are more likely to be committed by poor or homeless people, such as begging and being in public places, a crime. “Living without a home is considered a crime. Sleeping outside or in a car is illegal, soliciting work or conducting unrecognized work on land that you don’t own or pay for is increasingly criminalized and more and more poor workers, homeless people, welfare recipients, undocumented workers and youth in our country face police harassment, abuse and even incarceration for living in poverty” (United States Social Forum). Declaring these things to be crimes places additional burdens on people living in poverty. It also promotes social exclusion and fails to address the root causes of poverty and homelessness.
One example of the criminalization of poverty in Ontario is the so-called “squeegee law” called the Safe Streets Act. Under this law, it is illegal to solicit in an “aggressive manner.” “Aggressive manner” means a manner that is likely to cause a reasonable person to be concerned for his or her safety or security.” The law effectively targets homeless youth who engage in “squeegeeing” to survive. It also captures other homeless people, including the elderly, who ask for money in an “aggressive manner.”
The criminalization of poor and homeless peoples’ behaviour ignores the social realities of poverty. It fails to take into account the circumstances of people’s lives. Bill O’Grady and Robert Bright suggested that for poor and homeless youth, cleaning car windows was a rational response to the circumstances they faced on the streets. In contrast, law-makers characterized the act of squeegeeing as a nuisance and an annoyance.
In a recent Court of Appeal for Ontario decision, Justice Juriansz, for the court, upheld the law as just and constitutional. David Banks and others were convicted of panhandling offences under the Safe Streets Act and Highway Traffic Act. Banks and the other accused admitted that “by squeegeeing on various Toronto roads and soliciting money from cars stopped at red lights, they had committed an offence.” Nonetheless, they asked the court to set aside their convictions, arguing that the legislation was unconstitutional. They claimed that the law was unconstitutional because it infringed on rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Charter, including the right to life, liberty and security, the right to equality, and the right to the freedom of expression.
The court did not agree. Justice Juriansz reasoned that the right to life, liberty and security was not infringed because Banks and the others could have solicited money in other ways that were not prohibited by law. In addition, Justice Juriansz did not find that the appellants were discriminated against, and he found that they had alternative means to express their message.
The court’s decision reinforces the belief that the poor are agents of their own misfortune and fails to address the systemic factors that deny and limit the choices that are available to people living in poverty.
Poverty and Women (and Children)
In 2003, 1.5 million adult Canadian women were living in poverty. Women experience poverty at higher rates than men. Men receive more income than women from all sources, including wages and salaries, investment, retirement, and other income. Single mothers have the most unstable earnings and are among the most impoverished people in Canada. There are several reasons why women (and children) live in poverty:
Discrimination against women in gaining access to paid work and a fair income.
Sex-role stereotypes about women’s involvement in paid work – women account for 70% of all part-time employees and two-thirds of women are employed within traditionally women-dominated occupations.
A change in family composition, such as a divorce, greatly increases a woman’s chance of entering poverty.
Intersectionality: Aboriginal women, racialized women, disabled women and queer women are more likely to live in poverty than white women, able-bodied women and heterosexual women.
In Canada, women are at greater risk of poverty than men because of their gender. Social constructions of gender ‚Äì ideas about what it means to be a woman – also contribute to women’s poverty. Because of stereotypes about women’s nature and their ability and desire to act as caregivers, women are disproportionately responsible for unpaid caregiving labour, for example looking after children or aging or ill family members. Women are frequently dependent on men for financial support, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation and to poverty if the relationship with the man breaks down.
Criminalization of Women
Just as poverty and homelessness are generally criminalized through anti-begging laws and restrictions on public spaces, impoverished women are specifically criminalized as poor women.
Women who live in poverty are often charged with property offences and are criminalized for activities they regard as necessary for their economic survival, including sex work. About 70% of prostitutes are mothers, “mostly single mothers struggling to support families” (Street Sheet). Faced with difficult economic choices and “the evisceration of health, education and social services,” (DisAbled Women’s Network Ontario) women living in poverty may become entangled in the criminal justice system.
Poverty does not necessarily lead to crime, but “poverty is woven into the fabric of these women’s lives, reducing their options, crippling their morale, and rendering them outsiders” (Review of Women, Crime and Poverty). Further, “[w]ith women’s wages still pitched at less than 76% of men’s, most jobs available to women go nowhere near covering the costs of survival. Welfare ‘reform’ has destroyed the safety net which saved many from destitution — over 11 million mainly women-headed families have lost their sole income” (Street Sheet).
Discrimination against poor women threatens women’s ability to provide for themselves and to make choices that promote economic security. The criminalization of poverty limits women’s choices even more and makes them vulnerable to abuse, extreme poverty and homelessness. C. Lochead and K. Scott suggest that “[t]he solution to women’s poverty may lie in providing a range of options that afford women a choice over their lives…Alleviating women’s poverty is ultimately about giving women choice: the choice to pursue paid labour, the choice to care for others or even follow other personal interests without sacrificing their own well-being or the well-being of their families.” The criminalization of poverty does the opposite of what Kochead and Scott recommend ‚Äì further constricting women’s choices and penalizing them for their lack of privilege and social location.
Canadian Council on Social Development, “A Community Growing Apart: Income Gaps and Changing Needs in the City of Toronto in the 1990s” (October 2001), available online at <http://www.ccsd.ca/pubs/2001/uwgt/index.htm>.
C. Lochead and K. Scott, The Dynamics of Women’s Poverty in Canada (Canadian Council on Social Development, March 2000).
DAWN DisAbled Women’s Network Ontario, “Prisons as Panacea,” available online at <http://dawn.thot.net/kpate1.html>.
Elizabeth Fry Society, “Issues Associated with Increased Criminalization of Women,” available online at <http://www.elizabethfry.ca/eweek08/pdf/issues.pdf>.
Mayor’s Homelessness Action Task Force. Taking Responsibility for Homelessness: An Action Plan for Toronto, (Toronto: Municipality of Toronto, 1999).
Review of Women, Crime, and Poverty by Pat Carlen, Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Winter, 1989), pp.521-524.
Safe Streets Act 1999, S.O. 1999, c. 8.
Statistics Canada, Income in Canada 2005, “Notes and Definitions,” available online at <http://www.statcan.ca/english/freepub/75-202-XIE/2005000/technote1.htm>.
Statistics Canada, Income in Canada 2005, “Table 14.1 Low income after tax cut-offs 2001-2005,” available online at <http://www.statcan.ca/english/freepub/75-202-XIE/2005000/t098_en.pdf>.
Street Sheet (San Fransico) June 2005, p. 7, “The Criminalization of Survival: Poverty, Violence and Prostitution,” available online at <http://www.allwomencount.net/EWC%20Sex%20Workers/CriminalizationSurvivalStreetSheetSf.htm>.
The Court, “Banks: The Criminalization of Povert?” available online at <http://www.thecourt.ca/2007/08/23/banks-the-criminalization-of-poverty/>.
United Nations Statistics Division, available online at <http://unstats.un.org/unsd/cdb/cdb_dict_xrxx.asp?def_code=440>.
United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights, Human Rights in Development, “What is Poverty?” available online at <http://www.unhchr.ch/development/poverty-02.html>.
United States Social Forum, “Criminalization of Poverty,” available online at <https://www.ussf2007/org/en/node/1363>.