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Finlayson: Vancouver’s Incomes are Low, But Costs are High (Vancouver Sun)

By Jock Finlayson

Spending time in the downtown Vancouver business district or in the tonier residential neighbourhoods scattered across the lower mainland can easily foster a misleading impression of the financial health of the households that comprise the region.  That point was hammered home for me recently after reviewing the latest Statistics Canada data on incomes. 

As in previous years, Statistics Canada has collected information on family and individual incomes for 33 metropolitan areas spanning most of the country.  Looking specifically at “census families” – defined as a married or common law couple with or without children at home, or a lone parent with one or more children at home – the agency provides estimates of median pre-tax family income for all 33 metro areas.  (Median refers to the exact mid-point of the distribution: half of families have incomes above and half below the median.) 

For Greater Vancouver, the picture that emerges isn’t flattering.  For Canada as a whole, median pre-tax family income was $74,540, measured in constant 2012 dollars.  The Vancouver region is near the bottom of pile, scoring 28th with a median family income of $71,140 in 2012.  At the other end of the scale are the principal cities of Alberta and Saskatchewan, the perennially well-heeled Ottawa-Gatineau and the mid-sized Ontario city of Guelph.

The accompanying table provides data on family incomes in the most and least affluent metropolitan areas.  It should be noted that the figures are for pre-tax income at the household (not individual) level.  For most people, income and payroll taxes are deducted from pre-tax income.  Then, from what’s left, households have to pay sales, fuel, property, and various other taxes and government-imposed fees and levies.

The gaps between the best and worst performers on median income are striking.  In particular, Greater Vancouver lags behind top-ranked Calgary by $27,160 and trails Edmonton by almost $25,000.  Perhaps more surprisingly, typical census families in Regina and Saskatoon boasts incomes that are roughly $20,000 and $16,200, respectively, higher than Metro Vancouver’s.  It is also worth noting that B.C. hosts two of the country’s least prosperous urban areas – Vancouver and Abbotsford. 

An interesting finding from the income tabulations is the lacklustre showing of Canada’s three largest city-regions.  Like Vancouver, Toronto (with a median family income of $71,210) and Montreal ($71,390) score poorly on this key indicator.  All three metros are home to many poor residents; they also experience sizable inflows of immigrants every year.  Contrary to what some may believe, most newcomers to Canada struggle in the job market and have below-average incomes for at least the first ten years after their arrival.  It’s true that some immigrants with low reported incomes are wealthy, but that doesn’t describe most immigrant families.    

Greater Vancouver’s disappointing ranking on median income takes on added significance in light of high housing costs.  Housing costs here are the steepest in the country and compare unfavourably with costs in both Toronto and Montreal as well as all other Canadian (and most American) urban areas. The juxtaposition of expensive housing and decidedly mediocre (at best) household incomes is disconcerting and underscores the point that many families in the lower mainland are in a financial bind.

All in all, the data on family incomes suggests that politicians in Greater Vancouver aren’t paying enough attention to the economic well-being of area residents.  Many local mayors and elected councillors seem preoccupied with stopping pipeline development, railing against commodity exports, and standing in the way of measures that would strengthen the competitiveness of Port Metro Vancouver and the various industries that are linked to it – all things that would actually help to boost incomes in the region.  Perhaps they should be spending more time asking what local governments can do to create an economic and policy environment that will stimulate the growth of high-paying jobs and encourage more local businesses to expand. 

Median Family Income, $2012: The Stars and the Dogs

Top Six  
Calgary $98,300
Edmonton $96,030
Ottawa-Gatineau $94,230
Regina $91,200
Saskatoon $87,410
Guelph (ONT) $87,040
Bottom Six  
Vancouver $71,140
Brantford (ONT) $70,460
Sherbrooke (QUE) $68,700
St. Catharines (ONT) $68,410
Trois-Rivieres (QUE) $67,170
Abbotsford/Mission $66,550


 As published in the Vancouver Sun: