Mind the poverty gap
Let’s start with the good news. On average, most Canadians are doing considerably better than they were a decade ago.
According to Statistics Canada’s 2016 census, median incomes rose by an impressive 10.8 per cent over the decade from 2005 to 2015.
That’s an improvement from the recent past. In the decade before that, incomes were up 9.2 per cent. And it’s far better than the decline of 1.8 per cent between 1985 and 1995.
But hold the applause. Behind that rosy picture of prosperity are some troubling facts and figures that governments across the country must address.
First, not everyone shared in the growing prosperity. In fact, the share of Canadians living in low-income households actually increased slightly to14.2 per cent (that’s 4.8 million people) from14 per cent in 2005.
Seniors fared the worst, with14.5 per cent living in poverty, up from 12 per cent in the previous decade.
And while the percentage of children living in poverty was down slightly to 17.8 from 18.8 per cent, the picture is still alarming.
In seven of the country’s largest 35 urban centres, at least one in five children was living in a low-income household. Toronto barely missed that mark with a poverty rate for children of 19.7 per cent.
What those figures mean is that across this prosperous land there were 1.2 million children living in households below the generally agreed-on poverty line. This, despite the landmark pledge made by the House of Commons in 1989 to end child poverty by the year 2000.
Treating the symptoms of child poverty, such as urgent health care, mental health concerns, shelter costs and the criminal justice system, costs Canada an estimated $72 billion to $86 billion per year, according to Campaign 2000, which measures child poverty each year. That’s money that would be much better spent on ending it.
How to do that is hardly a secret. “We know from other research that government transfers are important for reducing people in low income,” Andrew Heisz of Statistics Canada told the Star. “More progressive transfers, such as child benefits, play an important role in reducing the low-income rate among families with children.”
Quebec is proof of that. Despite having the second-lowest median income level in the country, it was second only to Alberta in having the lowest percentage of children in low-income households. StatsCan says that is thanks to lower child care costs and more generous child benefits than anywhere else in the country.
There is some good news on this front. Figures from 2015 don’t reflect the current situation for families. The Liberal government’s Canada Child Benefit, which kicked in last year, is expected to raise 300,000 children out of poverty.
But there other shadows amid the growth of overall income in Canada.
Ontario has fallen behind badly over the past decade. Because of the gutting of the manufacturing sector and the loss of 318,000 jobs, he median income in this province grew only by 3.8 per cent.
That was the slowest growth of any province or territory over the past decade.
And things may not still be as glowing in resource-rich provinces as the census numbers suggest. The jump in incomes in Canada in the last decade was largely attributed to earlier high resource prices that attracted investment and workers to Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland. Those incomes likely took a hit from the steep drop in oil prices after the census data was taken.
The bottom line is that Canadian governments, provincial and federal, cannot rest on their laurels based on this new census data.
There is plenty of work to do to ensure continued robust growth and to make sure its fruits are shared as widely as possible.
Behind the good news in the 2016 census of a rise in median incomes in the past decade were troubling facts and figures, such as the stubbornly high child poverty rate