How do we measure poverty?

The Bottom Line

  • Measuring poverty is complex because indicators currently used have limitations.
  • Nevertheless, poverty among older adults appears to be increasing.
  • In addition to income and market-basket indicators, indicators based on the level of education, health status, geographic region, clothing, housing, food security and social inclusion provide a portrait of poverty closer to reality.

Five generations: that’s how long on average it's estimated it takes for a descendant of a poor family in an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member country to reach the average income of his country.(1) This finding illustrates that poverty is transmitted from one generation to the next and that it can take a long time to overcome it.

Poverty has enormous consequences for individuals, families and communities. While poverty affects people of all ages, it presents unique challenges for older adults. Indeed, poverty adds to the challenges of aging, such as growing needs for health and social services, loss of autonomy, reduced mobility, and reduced social and community support. According to Statistics Canada, Canada ranks 12th among OECD countries with an average poverty rate of 14.3% for older adults (ranging from 4.1% in Alberta to 26.7% in Newfoundland and Labrador).(2; 3; 4) Poverty appears to be more prevalent among certain groups of older adults, including those living alone and women.

That being said, it is not easy to paint a clear picture of poverty in Canada. Surprisingly, the federal government does not have a formal poverty line, that is, a dollar amount below which a person or a family would be considered "poor."(5) In addition, a variety of indicators are used across the country, but these have limitations. Income appears to be the most common indicator. Although this is a starting point, using only income as an indicator does not take into account all dimensions of poverty.(5)

For many years, municipal, provincial, territorial and federal governments have expressed their commitment to develop and implement poverty-reduction strategies.(6; 7; 8; 9; 10; 11) Various groups and researchers have also proposed new poverty lines and indicators.(12; 13) It is therefore timely to take stock of the indicators that can be used to measure poverty among older adults.

What research tells us

A recent systematic review found that the majority of studies have measured poverty among older adults based on income and market-basket indicators.(14) These traditional indicators, however, seem to underestimate the poverty rates among older adults. To a lesser extent, studies have used poverty indicators based on assets or wealth of individuals, as well as indicators illustrating poverty as perceived by older adults (for example, the amount of money perceived as necessary to live in a given community).

The systematic review also highlighted some research trends. In fact, studies increasingly focus on measuring poverty among older adults by using a combination of indicators. The purpose is to take into account the different dimensions of poverty and to establish more precise estimates. Other indicators proposed in the studies to measure poverty among older adults include:

- the health status of older adults (and their needs for health and social services);
- the level of education of older adults, such as the acquisition of skills and knowledge useful for life in society;
- the ability of older adults to buy appropriate clothing or shoes;
- the level of food security, including older adults’ ability to obtain adequate, healthy and nutritious food, and to eat at least one meal a day containing meat, fish or a vegetarian equivalent;
- costs related to accommodation and access to adequate and safe housing, including the ability to connect to the internet or to maintain a proper temperature in their homes;
- the level of social inclusion, and the opportunity to travel by car or public transport to participate in activities and community life; and
- the characteristics of the communities where older adults live (for example, access to infrastructure and public services).(4; 14)

Having an official poverty line and robust indicators are essential for poverty-reduction strategies. Without them, it is not possible for a government to set targets, assess the effectiveness of poverty-reduction interventions, and publicly report on the achievement of these targets.(5) Older adults and their caregivers must make their voices heard at the various levels of government and in poverty studies to develop more relevant, valid and reliable poverty indicators. After all, they know better than anyone the challenges faced by older adults who are trying to make ends meet.

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Author Details


  1. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. A broken social elevator? How to promote social mobility, OECD Publishing, Paris: France, 2018. [cited in August 2018]. Available at
  2. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Poverty rate. OECD Publishing, Paris: France, 2015.
  3. Statistics Canada. After-tax income of private household. Statistics Canada, Ottawa: Canada, 2016. [Internet]. [cited in August 2018]. Available at
  4. Waddell K, Panchal P, Wilson MG. Rapid synthesis: Identifying indicators and rates of poverty among older adults. McMaster Health Forum, Hamilton: Canada, 2018. [cited in August 2018]. Available at
  5. Wolfson M. If Canada wants to help the poor, it needs a new way to measure poverty. The Globe and Mail, Toronto: Canada, 6 June 2018. [cited in August 2018]. Available at
  6. Government of Canada. Poverty reduction strategy. [cited in August 2018]. Available at
  7. Government of British Colombia. Poverty reduction. [cited in August 2018]. Available at
  8. Government of Alberta. Action on poverty. 2015.
  9. Government of Ontario. Poverty reduction strategy. [cited in August 2018]. Available at
  10. Government of Quebec. An act to combat poverty and social exclusion. [cited in August 2018]. Available at
  11. Toronto. Toronto poverty reduction strategy. [cited in August 2018]. Available at
  12. Council on Aging of Ottawa. Toward a “New Canada Poverty Line” (NCPL): Input to the Canadian poverty reduction strategy. Ottawa: Canada, 2018. [cited in August 2018]. Available at
  13. Presse Canadienne. Un nouvel indicateur mesure la pauvreté des ménages au Québec. La Presse, 12 April 2018. [cited in August 2018]. Available at
  14. Kwan CW, Christine A. Old age poverty: A scoping review of the literature. Cogent Social Sciences. 2018;4(Issue):1-21.

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