The recession has left a lingering bruise on an increasingly vulnerable sector of Canadian society: young, single men.
As social scientists begin to dissect the effects of the downturn, they’re coming to the same conclusion Kerry Kaiser has reached intuitively, by watching the clientele at her downtown Ottawa food bank.
“Single males are screwed,” she said bluntly. “I don’t know why.”
She has an inkling, though.
The young men who show up hungry on her doorstep are spending most of their welfare cheques on rent. They don’t get the benefits or the subsidies that governments have set up over the years for struggling families. And now, with low-skill jobs scarce in the wake of the recession, they can’t compete.
“We see them getting it at all angles,” Kaiser said.
Her observation dovetails with the findings of John Stapleton, a social policy researcher who has just completed an exhaustive study of social assistance during the recession, for the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation.
Stapleton has sifted through welfare data from five provinces representing 79 per cent of the country’s population, and found that the recession has revealed two key trends.
The good news, he writes in his draft paper, is that federal and provincial programs for families have helped single mothers deal with poverty.
They have better access to child support than in the past, as well as new child benefits. Many single parents are able to cobble together several different kinds of assistance to make ends meet.
They’ve also been more adept at finding jobs in the burgeoning service industry, Stapleton says, partly because those service jobs have traditionally gone to women.
As a result, the number of single mothers relying on welfare has actually fallen, he found. In Ontario, for example, the caseload has dropped by 75,000 in the last nine years — a decrease of 21 per cent, despite the recession.
The opposite is true for young, single men. In Ontario, the number in this group on welfare has risen 61 per cent in nine years, to 148,000 from 92,000.
Similar increases were found in British Columbia, Quebec, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador, Stapleton writes.
“Single, young men are the new face of poverty in Canadian cities,” he says.
Many of the young men relying on welfare are visible minorities, who often have low levels of education and trouble with business English and numeracy, he adds.
Typically, their welfare payments are about a third of what they would be paid if they had a steady minimum-wage job, putting them far below the poverty line.
They don’t have access to other benefits, find it difficult to qualify for subsidized housing, and have had a hard time landing new jobs in the services-based economy, Stapleton says.
The final word on poverty during the recession won’t be ready for another year from Statistics Canada, but Stapleton’s gleanings from social assistance data are not surprising to other analysts watching the effects of the recession.
Craig Alexander, chief economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank, notes that recessions usually hit the young harder than the old. But during this recession, the labour market was particularly punishing to young men, and they’re having a hard time recovering.
During the worst days of the downturn, the labour market contracted 2.4 per cent. But for men between the ages of 15 and 24, 12.7 per cent of jobs were lost — about 170,000 positions. While other demographics are seeing their employment opportunities open up as the economy recovers, young men have only found a net new 20,000 new jobs since the beginning of the year.
“Young males really bore an enormous brunt of the job losses, and males in particular,” Alexander said.
Of those, immigrants and newcomers to Canada were especially prevalent, he said.
Labour economist Andrew Jackson says he’s concerned that youth unemployment remains stubbornly high, and that low-skilled young people will be pushed into permanent poverty because they can’t get the experience they need to compete.
Often baby-boomers whose savings have been wiped out by the financial crisis are taking their low-skilled jobs, he says.
“Even after a partial recovery from the low point in the summer of 2009, the labour market situation facing young workers is grim, and much worse than before the recession began.”
For Stapleton, the solution lies partly in the success governments have had in helping single moms.
If provincial, federal and municipal governments can target young single people with a variety of supports — the way they’ve done with lone parents — then impoverished young men will find it easier to make ends meet, he says.