Census 2016: Prairies, commodity boom drive growth in national incomes

OTTAWA — Carissa, a single mom on welfare six years ago, has a full-time job today and more money to show for it — along with a number of other Canadians, suggest fresh census numbers released Wednesday that shine new light on the struggle to make ends meet.

But the latest income figures, based on tax data from 2015, also illustrate the regional and societal disparities the five-year census always seems to expose: commodity riches in the West, job shortages in Atlantic Canada, manufacturing woes in Ontario and Quebec — and a persistent, if narrowing, wage gap between working women and men.

On average, Canadians saw a steady rise in their income between 2005 and 2015, when the median national income weighed in at $70,336, up 10.8 per cent from $63,457 a decade earlier, once adjusted for inflation.

Much of that increase can be attributed to the spike in commodity prices over that 10-year period, helping resource-rich regions like Nunavut, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador post increases twice or three times the national average.

It’s another layer on the paint-by-numbers portrait Statistics Canada began in February with a population boom out West, which saw a commensurate spike in the number of households. Additional brushstrokes added a historically high number of seniors, children staying at home longer and more generations than ever living under Canadian roofs, among other flourishes.

Growth in incomes isn’t always tied to more people, Statistics Canada is quick to note. But in this case, the country’s migration west followed a rise in oil prices, fuelling a construction boom that helped drive up median incomes and drive down poverty rates.

“One of the stories of the resource boom is that there are definitely increases in median income, but most of the gains are going to go to the top (earners),” said David Macdonald, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

“Much of the action (on income) is because of the Prairies, not as much because of the traditional engines of growth, which are Ontario and Quebec.”

Canada’s most populous province watched its median income barely move over the last decade, its 3.8 per cent rise ranking a dismal last.

That’s thanks to a decline in manufacturing since 2005, including a loss of 318,000 jobs, or roughly 30 per cent. In Windsor, Ont., an automotive hub that fared worst of all of Ontario’s cities, median income actually dropped, causing an increase in the number of children living in poverty.

The Atlantic provinces and Quebec had the lowest median incomes in the country in 2015, just as in 2005, although there were wide variations in Quebec. Resource-rich parts of that province posted above-average gains in income; areas with higher-than-average growth in seniors or manufacturing bases were left behind.

Median income is one measure of the vaguely defined “middle class” that political parties of all stripes have been clamouring to help. The federal Liberal government talks at every turn of helping those who struggle to keep up with the cost of living — and posting huge budget deficits to do it.

People like Carissa, 32, who asked that she be identified by first name only.

“Do I want financial security? Absolutely,” said the Ottawa resident. “I feel like I’m well on track to be more financially secure … but I would say that it’s still very hard to step back into the private market when you don’t have that security.”

The gender wage gap persists, of course, but there’s been progress there, too.

Since 2005, women’s incomes have grown more than five times faster than their male counterparts — 11.6 per cent compared to 2.2 per cent — likely because of more higher-paying union work for women, while men lose manufacturing jobs, said Doug Norris, chief demographer at Environics Analytics.

In 2005, the gap in employment income was almost $13,500, once adjusted for inflation; by 2015, that gap was at $11,362.

Statistics Canada said 32 per cent of couples earned roughly the same amount, a jump from the 20.6 per cent recorded 30 years ago. In half the country’s opposite-sex couples, men earned more than women, compared with 71.3 per cent in 1985.

Andrew Heisz, assistant director of the agency’s income statistics division, said the rise in female wages is tied to more women graduating with a post-secondary degree, which has also helped close the gender gap steadily over time.

“We see all of these things increasing for women over a long period of time,” Heisz said.

“Women are more likely to be in the labour force now than they were in the past, so the last 10 years have just been a continuation of many of those trends.”

More detailed income data about immigrants and Indigenous Peoples, both on and off-reserve, is scheduled for release next month.

“Those linkages by demographic characteristics really matter,” said Jennifer Robson, an assistant professor of public policy at Carleton University in Ottawa, and a member of the school’s Centre for Studies on Poverty and Social Citizenship.

“There is a lot of data that tells us there are particular demographic groups that, notwithstanding rising (income) trends, remain persistently at risk for lower income.”

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