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Economy Lab

The changing face of poverty in Canada Add to ...

Who are the poor in Canada?



For a country that’s pretty good at tracking economic trends, collective knowledge about incomes and mobility is scant. Canada no longer publishes timely national stats on welfare rates, and provincial tracking of social assistance rates varies considerably.



Unlike the U.S., Canada doesn’t publish data on the number of people whose jobless benefits expire without finding work. And the most recent information on the income levels of Canadians dates to 2009 -- three years ago.

More related to this story



A study released this month sheds some light on longer-term trends. The paper, by Brian Murphy, Xuelin Zhang and Claude Dionne of Statistics Canada’s income statistics division, examines 34 years of low-income levels in Canada. It looks at what different measures of poverty show, and how trends changed between 1976 and 2009.



It comes as public debate over income inequality is heating up, in Canada and around the world, as evidence points to a growing polarization between the rich and the poor.



Here are some of the Statscan paper’s findings:



  • Low-income people have accounted for as much as 16 per cent of the population and as little as 9 per cent over the past 34 years, depending on the time period and low-income line used.


  • Between 2000 and 2007, the low-income population in Canada fell by more than half a million people, using two measures: the low income cut-offs (or LICO) and the market basket measure (MBM). Under the low-income measure (LIM), it rose by half a million (the paper explains the reasons for the difference).


  • Between 2007 and 2009, though, the downward trend in low income rates under the LICO and MBM began to reverse itself. Levels in 2008 and 2009 under those two measures are higher than in 2007, though they still represent the second-lowest annual rates of the past 34 years. The LICO, too, shows a slight upward trend in low-income in that time.


  • Considerable shifts happened among socio-economic groups. The incidence of low-income status for single parents has seen a “significant, long-term” decrease, the study said. In fact, their low-income rates dropped to about 20 per cent from 1996 to 2009, half the rate of prior decades. And their rates continued to fall even through the recession, when low-income rates were rising elsewhere (one reason, the study suggests, is that a growing services sector has meant more employment for women).


  • Low-income rates for seniors declined significantly between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s. From 2007 to 2009, though, these rates rose, regardless of which measure is used -- a bump that also occurred in the two prior recession of the early 1980s and 1990s.


  • Incidences of children in low income have largely declined over the 34 years. Measures are mixed on how they fared through the recent recession.


  • Recent immigrants are faring worse. Low income among this group was just 10 per cent in the late-1970s, with the proportion doubling in the 1980s. All three poverty measures show the low-income rate for recent arrivals swelled between 2007 and 2008 and was stable in 2009.


  • Low-income rates have broadly declined among off-reserve Aborginal people since the mid-1990s. But all three measures show their rate ticked higher in the last year of the study as their employment situation deteriorated.


  • Provincially, Alberta has the lowest low income rates as of 2009, followed by PEI. Quebec and British Columbia had the highest incidences of low income among the provinces.

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