Census data reveals far more than how much the average Canadian makes


Last week, Statistics Canada released the 2016 Census data on income which showed a mixed bag for the country’s overall economic health.

Central to the findings of this data is the fact that median household income for people across the country rose over 10 percent to $70,336 over the course of ten years, driven by a boom in Canada’s resource sector. But amidst this positive news, there are some troubling trends for people living in low-income and poverty.

What new information have we gained from the 2016 census?

Overall, the rate of people living in low-income has remained virtually unchanged in a decade, shifting slightly from 14 percent in 2005 to 14.2 percent in 2015. Atlantic Canada continues to have the highest incidences of people living in low-income, but Ontario cities like London and Windsor are seeing 3 to 4 percent increases in their low-income rate.

The rate of child poverty – long a barrier to Canada’s fulfillment of global leadership on human rights – is trending down, but in comparison, the number of seniors living in low-income has risen. This large increase is mostly prevalent among senior-aged men, though overall senior-aged women still disproportionately live in low-income.

This increase in senior poverty mirrors data released by the Daily Bread Food Bank revealing a staggering 27 percent increase in senior food bank usage from last year in Toronto. Among those seniors accessing Toronto food banks, users noted that they were giving up food because income was redirected to address household costs of housing, phone, transportation and utilities. This increase of food insecurity for seniors seems to be inextricably connected to the skyrocketing cost of living – particularly in the city of Toronto – including housing prices and pharmacare expenses that fall outside of drug plan coverage.

Reflecting on this data and the recent survey from the Canadian Payroll Association in which 75 percent of Canadians self-reported as only having a quarter of the money they thought they’d need for retirement, it’s clear as Canada’s population ages, we will need a more comprehensive approach to financial needs of seniors.

The census data also revealed the persistence of Canada’s gender wage gap problem. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Edmonton and Calgary continue to have the largest gender wage gap, with women earning 63 cents on the male dollar in Edmonton and 68 cents on the dollar in Calgary, and the gap has widened in Toronto. St. Johns saw the biggest decline in poverty rates for everyone, but the gender gap in poverty rates remains the highest among Canada’s 25 largest cities.

What insights can we gather from this data?

First, we need to work towards a more holistic picture of poverty rates. The census data on poverty relies on a measure known as the After Tax Low Income Measure (LIM-AT) which quantifies a household as low income if their income is less than half of the median income of all households, but exclusively looking at one measurement means missing out on the true impact that poverty has on health, food security, housing, and labour.

In order to address poverty, Canada must have accurate and comprehensive data – including usage rates of charitable services like food banks and emergency shelters. There is also a vital need for qualitative data, information that comes directly from those who are affected.

All the same, we know that poverty is at critical levels and Canada must work to ensure that communities disproportionately impacted by income, food, and housing insecurity are both centered and consulted in anti-poverty legislation, as well as their particular needs informing strategies. Seniors could be supported through a more comprehensive national pharmacare program, while the gender wage gap could be tackled through pay equity legislation and enforcement.

Policies aimed at addressing these challenges must be based in human rights and work to progressively implement Canada’s human rights obligations like the rights to food, housing, and an adequate standard of living.

Laura Neidhart is the Development & Communications Coordinator for Canada Without Poverty.