From her ninth-floor apartment in the northwest corner of Toronto, Maheswary Puvaneswaran glances out over a neighbourhood of neat and trim homes where she can only dream of living.

If she even had time to dream.

Right now, she barely has time to sleep.

When you are a member of the working poor ? more than 650,000 strong in this country ? there is precious little time for either.

Around 9:30 p.m., when most families are getting ready for bed, she escorts her two sons, aged 6 and 13, down a narrow carpeted corridor in their concrete highrise. Clad in flannel pyjamas, backpacks over their shoulders and sleeping bags and pillows in their arms, the boys wilfully, though not eagerly, accept the journey as part of their routine. They reach a doorway and, with a final hug, their mother leaves them in the care of a neighbour for the night.

Outside on the deserted rain-soaked streets near the intersection of Martin Grove Rd. and The Westway, she catches a city bus and travels north. She transfers to another bus further on, one that eventually drops her off at a condominium where she will mop hallway floors, empty garbage and scrub toilets from 11 p.m. until dawn.

"My sons, they always say, `Please stay with us.' But I can't," she says with a mix of sadness and regret. "I have to leave. I have to work."

For her labour, Puvaneswaran earns no more than $1,150 in an entire month, often less. The rent for her small one-bedroom apartment is $849.

Puvaneswaran, who is paid $8.50 an hour, borrows money from friends to get by. She has relatives who sometimes send clothes from England. She rations food during the week ? one glass of milk for each boy at morning and one at night. She won't allow herself any. After 3 p.m., she lets her sons have some fruit, a banana or apple.

Their main meal of the day alternates between rice (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays) and pasta (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays). On Sunday afternoons, they look forward to a hearty meal at the Hindu temple where they worship. In short, she pays a hefty price to live in the country's largest and richest city.

So why ? 13 years after settling in Canada ? does a hard-working mother still live in poverty? How many more years will she be expected to live and work like this?

In the time Puvaneswaran has been here, there has been no shortage of research documenting the plight of the nation's poor, 40 per cent of whom work but can't earn a decent living for themselves and their families.

Almost annually, government agencies at all levels and community-based groups ? ranging from the United Way to the national anti-child poverty group Campaign 2000 ? have urged reforms of Canada's social-security, housing, child-care and income-security programs. The reports' titles read like a burning red flag: The Outsiders, The Growing Gap, Families on the Financial Edge, Precarious Jobs, Enough Talk, Falling Fortunes, Time for a Fair Deal.

Despite the stack of studies, the plight of the working poor remains all too invisible on the political radar screen of Queen's Park and Ottawa.

"It's bloody horrendous," says Deena Ladd, co-ordinator of the Workers' Action Centre, a worker-based organization fighting for changes to labour laws. "These people are on the margins of the workforce and have a big struggle on their hands. We have to get someone to pay attention."

A federal study released last month found that more than 650,000 Canadians who work still lack the means to live a decent life. A total of 1.5 million live in working-poor families, a third of them children.

Puvaneswaran, 45, who has a post-secondary degree in the liberal arts and taught school in Sri Lanka, would unquestionably be counted among them. Like her, they scrub toilets, mop floors, toil in factories, wash dishes, deliver pizzas and newspapers, make hotel beds, serve coffee, sell credit cards and drive taxis. Many work at two and three jobs to stay afloat. Some are paid Ontario's minimum hourly wage of $7.75, some more, others less.

`People are putting up with the most atrocious conditions because they cannot afford to leave'

Elizabeth Bruckmann, Parkdale Community Legal Services

An alarming number of Ontario's working poor ? 37 per cent ? work in part-time, casual or temporary jobs, or are misclassified as "self-employed," denying them basic employment rights many Canadians take for granted. Thousands are at the mercy of "temp" agencies that enable employers to hire and fire workers at will.

Despite working long and hard hours, the federal analysis done for Human Resources and Social Development Canada found they are, on average, as poor as people on welfare.

Social workers, academics and some politicians are sounding the alarm: Without major reforms, we will all soon pay for the ever-widening gap between the prosperous and the poor.

Largely immigrants, visible minorities and single parents, the working poor are called "the semi-invisible." We barely notice them. And when the jobs disappear, so do they.

So precarious are their lives, poverty experts warn that the slightest downturn in the economy could suddenly thrust thousands onto government assistance, employment insurance or, worse, the streets.

"One thing goes bad in their lives and they're plunged into a precipice," says Susan Pigott, executive director of St. Christopher House, a social-services agency, and co-chair of a high-powered task force of business, labour, academic and civic leaders that released a report earlier this year on the city's working-age poor. The report calls for a federal income supplement or "top-up" for low-wage workers and a revamping of Canada's income-security system.

Puvaneswaran's economic struggle has ebbed and flowed over the years, but it has only ever fluctuated between being poor and poorer.

There is no sofa in her sparse one-bedroom apartment, so Puvaneswaran graciously offers up plastic chairs during a recent interview. Bedding is rolled up against the living-room wall. Her sons are in the other room, lying quietly on their beds.

She and her husband arrived from Sri Lanka in April 1993, she explains, shortly before her first son was born. Her husband took work in a Toronto factory; she stayed home to care for their child. She later went to work ironing and packing at a Roots factory before giving birth to her second son, now 6.

Tragedy struck when her husband was injured at his job in a glass factory. He underwent two operations on his hand, and tried but failed to return to work. He left angry and disillusioned. He received sick pay in 2005, but his support ran out, and last November Puvaneswaran again returned to work.

Her husband went back to Sri Lanka two months ago to visit his sick mother. She has no idea when or if he'll return.

"There are just far too many people living in large urban centres that are on a go-nowhere treadmill," Pigott says. "If you're working full-time, you should be able to make ends meet."

Puvaneswaran arrives home from work around 7 a.m., in time to get her kids off to school, then falls into bed for several hours before waking to make meals for their return. On a good week when she's handed 30 hours of work, she'll set off again in the evening.

Before making the ritualistic walk down the corridor, she puts together a snack and the next day's school lunch. On a particular evening in her kitchen this week, she pulls out some cinnamon raisin bagels and slips a breaded chicken patty in the middle of each.

She'd love to put some of her wages into occasional luxuries for herself and her boys ? a meal in a restaurant, a movie, video games ? but the high cost of the rent delivers a jolt back to reality.

She remembers that as a couple, she and her husband applied for subsidized housing many years ago, but she can't recall what happened to the request. If she applied now, the wait could be up to 10 years, according to the city.

The high cost of rent almost had Puvaneswaran and her kids tossed onto the street in April.

`My sons, they always say, "Please stay with us." But I can't. I have to leave. I have to work'

Maheswary Puvaneswaran, working mother of two

Before moving into their one-bedroom apartment, the family had been living in a two-bedroom that cost $986 a month. She came home one day and was startled to find a sheriff changing the locks. She'd been short $150 over two months' rent. Her neighbour, Malathi Chennai, remembers the tears and mayhem that day and having to come to the rescue.

"I gave her some money for the rent," Chennai says.

Puvaneswaran now works for two employment agencies. One sends her to the job cleaning condos; the other found her work cleaning floors in a west-end medical plastics factory. Although paid better than minimum wage, she still averages only 16 to 30 hours a week of work.

"I'm always sleepy," she says of the effects of working a graveyard shift. "But I need more hours. I need a permanent job."

In the 13 years that Puvaneswaran has been in Canada, the country's workforce has changed dramatically. New immigrants and visible minorities make up a larger proportion of low-income workers, despite having a higher education than immigrants in the past. In 1981, one in seven immigrant families lived in poverty; by 2001, it was almost one in four.

The number of people working in temporary or part-time jobs, often through temp agencies, has doubled in Ontario since 1989. It has become a convenient means for employers to ignore the province's Employment Standards Act, according to this year's task force report by the Toronto City Summit Alliance and St. Christopher House.

Every year, between 15,000 and 20,000 workers complain to the Ministry of Labour of not being paid for overtime or statutory holidays, or of not being paid at all. Some work as many as 60 hours a week. Others don't get enough hours and then fail to qualify for employment insurance. Part-time employees, like Puvaneswaran, are typically denied basic health and dental benefits.

"Employers used to call a temp agency when an employee was off sick for a week. Now they're hiring people through temp agencies effectively for their permanent staff," says Elizabeth Bruckmann, staff lawyer at Parkdale Community Legal Services.

"People are putting up with the most atrocious conditions because they cannot afford to leave a job."

In the past 15 years, the minimum wage, employment insurance and social assistance have all significantly declined in value, and there's been little public or political pressure to improve the situation.

A growing number of workers are now being forced to take jobs misclassified as "self-employed," denying them job security, sick pay, pensions and other benefits. The federal study, entitled When Working is Not Enough to Escape Poverty, found that more than 40 per cent of working-poor Canadians are self-employed and thus not eligible to collect employment insurance.

"The government needs to recognize it's not the 1950s anymore," says Ladd of the Workers' Action Centre, which has been lobbying for at least a $10-an-hour minimum wage and changes to labour laws.

"It's 2006 and our world of employment has radically changed, yet our laws are based on post-Second World War."

There is no official definition of poverty in Canada, but by any measure one can see Puvaneswaran personifies the raw reality of any cold calculations. This year, her earnings will be about $13,000. A government child benefit only barely lightens the load, bringing her total annual income to about $16,000 ? not much different from what she would receive if she went on welfare.

Her income is well below the $37,791 ($31,865 after tax) that Statistics Canada defines as low income for a Toronto family of four.

"She is the sole provider in the household, but she doesn't complain a lot," says Jayanthie Reynold, program manager at the South Asian Women's Centre. She recalls Puvaneswaran coming to the Bloor St. W. centre for emotional support during her husband's struggles, but she hasn't seen her lately.

"She feels bad when I give her a token," Reynold says. "But for her to come and see us, she has to use the TTC."

Puvaneswaran now has a TTC pass from one of her employers, but she is also looking for a third part-time job, one she hopes will raise her monthly pay to at least $1,200.

"If my income is $1,200," she says modestly, "I can manage."