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

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