Debate Is Raging Over Canada’s Record-Low Poverty Claim
An outdated measurement of poverty could be skewing the data.
The government of Canada recently released data that suggested Canada’s poverty rates are the lowest they’ve ever been — but critics argue the methodology used to determine these stats is outdated and flawed.
Statistics Canada, the government’s agency that produces stats that affect the population, released its findings from the Canadian Income Survey for 2017 on Feb. 26. The survey tracked Canadians’ incomes from various demographics in 2017 and determined that the median income for Canadian families was $59,800 per year, up by 3.3% from 2016.
The study also revealed that 9.5% of Canadians were living below the poverty line — a year prior 10.6% of Canadians were reported living below the poverty line.
“Based on the methodology that is being used … we do see this as a premature announcement and many people who are living in poverty also feel that way,” Michèle Biss, legal education and outreach coordinator for Canada Without Poverty, told Global Citizen. “For millions of people in our country who are still having to make decisions between paying hydro or buying food, they’re going to look at this announcement and ask the question, ‘Why is it that I am being left behind?’”
The government compiled this data using the Market Basket Measure (MBM), which is used to determine Canada’s poverty line. Living under the poverty line is defined as being unable to buy a “basket” of specific goods and services that include essentials like food and shelter.
But as StatsCan is in the process of updating the MBM to reflect present-day costs and circumstances, the current measures do not provide an accurate reflection of poverty rates in Canada, according to Biss.
"Based on a whole picture of the data, the 2020 targets have not yet been met, and as such, the announcement by the government is premature. Significantly more action is needed for the over 4 million people living in #poverty under the LIM." https://t.co/SsGPQoyNt9— CanadaWithoutPoverty (@CWP_CSP) February 27, 2019
To put this in context, she explains that the current MBM measurement puts the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver at $1,100 per month. Data from February 2019 indicated that the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver is actually closer to $2,100 (and over $3,200 for a two-bedroom apartment).
Darlene O’Leary, socio-economic policy analyst for Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ), agrees that the current MBM provides somewhat of a distorted look at poverty in Canada.
“The data is encouraging — however, it’s incomplete,” she told Global Citizen.
O’Leary says that the survey can work as a check-in point for poverty rates in Canada, but she says that at CPJ, they compile their numbers using data from people’s taxes, which is likely to be more accurate than the voluntary survey used by StatsCan.
“Some of the information is maybe less rigorous than you would get from tax filing, and also it doesn’t include First Nations communities or the territories,” she explained. “Excluding those populations really does impact the results, given that poverty in those communities is so high.”
CPJ’s report Poverty Trends 2018 showed that the territory of Nunavut had the highest poverty rate in Canada. And the child poverty rate among status First Nations children sits at about 50%, according to the charity True North Aid.
“That being said, the fact that things are sort of trending in a positive direction is something that we’re glad to see,” O’Leary said.
The government has pointed to the Canada Child Benefit as an important factor in reducing child poverty in the country. The Canada Child Benefit is a government program provides families up to $6,400 per child under 6 and $5,400 per child aged 6 to 17.
“This reduction in poverty is being attributed very much to the Canada Child Benefit and it is a great policy,” Biss said. “And it’s one that we’d very much like to see more of, but the reality is that it’s also not a silver bullet for poverty.”
Both Biss and O’Leary point out that there are different groups that are likely falling through the cracks and not receiving enough support. For example, single working people without children would not qualify for Old Age Security or the Canada Child Benefit.
“We tend to take a very comprehensive approach when we’re trying to push for a range of policies to address a whole bunch of different issues because poverty is so complicated,” O’Leary said of CPJ’s work.
CPJ looks at implementing not just income security benefits, but also access to affordable housing, improvements to health care, better access to services for Indigenous people, universal child care, improvements in food security, as well as employment opportunities and minimum wages.
According to Biss and O’Leary, there is a need for a holistic approach when tackling poverty to ensure that nobody gets left behind — an idea echoed by the UN’s Global Goals that aim to eradicate extreme poverty worldwide by 2030.