Providing a fuller picture of poverty in Canada: The Material Deprivation Index

Think of all the things you feel that you need to maintain an acceptable standard of living in Canada.

These things could include regular access to certain types of food, like fresh fruit and vegetables; being able to keep your home at a comfortable temperature year-round; and even a winter coat that is good enough to keep you warm and dry.

In different ways, each of these items and activities – from accessing medicines prescribed by your doctor and regular dental treatments, to having the means to invite friends or family around to share an occasional meal together – ultimately contribute to your ability to reach an acceptable standard of living in this country.

Now imagine that you didn’t have access to these things. Maybe you’re unemployed or receiving an income that isn’t even coming close to keeping up with the cost of living. Perhaps you can’t afford to participate in special events that are important to people from your own ethnic, cultural, or religious group. How do you think this would affect you?

This disconnection from the items and activities identified by the general population as “items that a household with an adequate standard of living in Canada would ordinarily have” is known as material deprivation, and measuring it can help illustrate the full extent of poverty in Canada in a way that current income-based measures – on their own – may be falling short.


Current poverty measures such as the Market Basket Measure (MBM), which is Canada’s official measure of poverty, use the amount of income that a household has access to, and whether that income falls above or below a certain threshold, to assess whether they are likely to be living in poverty or not. In the case of the MBM, the poverty threshold is based on the cost of a predetermined basket of goods and services that a household with an annual income above that threshold should be able to afford. If their annual income is below that threshold, the MBM assesses that household as more likely to be living at the poverty level.

However, these measures do not take the different ways that people can finance their basic needs into consideration beyond income, including having assets, access to in-kind services or programs, or support from friends or family. These measures are also less sensitive to the impacts that major events such as the pandemic and skyrocketing inflation can have on a household’s well-being, as well as household debt – regardless of whether their income falls above the official poverty threshold.

Measuring material deprivation adds a greater level of understanding when it comes to the true extent of poverty nationwide because it encompasses both the monetary and non-monetary contributors to a household’s standard of living. More than just a lack of money for basic needs, material deprivation refers to the inability to possess the items or engage in the activities that are deemed to be socially perceived necessities. It speaks to being in a state of demonstrable disadvantage compared to the rest of one’s own society due to a lack of appropriate resources. In other words, material deprivation measures who is being excluded from the minimum acceptable way of life.


To show the full extent of poverty and its effects on food insecurity from coast to coast to coast, Food Banks Canada’s Research Team is working in collaboration with academics, government, the Maytree Foundation, and the Maple Leaf Centre for Food Security to develop a made-in-Canada Material Deprivation Index (MDI) – a measure that is already being used in many European countries and others internationally.

With the support of our partners, this work involves developing an updated list of material deprivation indicators that is more reflective of current social and economic realities. Importantly, Food Banks Canada’s Research Team is using a combined quantitative and qualitative approach that is inclusive of people with lived experience of food insecurity, to explain in greater detail, the significance of certain indicators over others. This includes closely examining whether groups such as Indigenous and racialized populations, who are more likely to face higher rates of poverty and food insecurity due to systemic racism and oppression, may prioritize needs differently.

“Through this project, an updated list of material deprivation indicators will be developed to be more reflective of the lived experience of people, in particular historically marginalized groups, and what they need to truly thrive,” said Lynda Kuhn, Senior Vice President, Government Relations of Maple Leaf Foods and Chair of the Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security.

Once complete, this new measure will be able to assess a household’s standard of living more directly by seeing which goods and services the household does or does not have. It will also give us a much clearer picture of who is more likely to experience food insecurity despite not living in a low-income bracket according to standard income-based poverty measures.

“Income-based measures, like the Market Basket Measure, only tell part of the story of poverty in Canada,” said Sarah Stern, leader of the Maple Leaf Centre for Food Security. “A Material Deprivation Index for Canada will help improve our understanding of the experience of poverty and how it influences food insecurity, and will support calls for policy change.”

“The data in our most recent HungerCount report outlined that there were almost 1.5 million visits to food banks across Canada in March 2022 alone, up 35 per cent compared to pre-pandemic visits,” explained Kirstin Beardsley, CEO of Food Banks Canada. “There was also a significant increase in the number of food bank clients who reported employment as their main source of income, showing us that no one is safe from food insecurity, especially with the sharp increases in the cost of living. We must work together to develop a much stronger social safety net and long-term solutions to reduce systemic poverty.”


To date, Food Banks Canada’s Research Team has completed the first stage of the MDI project, which involved surveying the general population on their views regarding what amongst a long list of items and activities they think is necessary for households in Canada to have. The results have given us a sense of what people feel should be available to a household in order to have an adequate standard of living in Canada.

Food Banks Canada’s people-centered MDI research is expected to not only deepen our understanding of poverty and food insecurity across the country, but also enable policymakers to better target and track the success of poverty reduction initiatives. This research will also help other non-profit organizations and members of the public to identify and advocate for poverty reduction policies that will help end hunger once and for all.