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On poverty and low income

by Ivan P. Fellegi, Chief Statistician of Canada

September 1997

Recently the news media have provided increasing coverage of Statistics Canada's low income cut-offs and their relationship to the measurement of poverty. At the heart of the debate is the use of the low income cut-offs as poverty lines, even though Statistics Canada has clearly stated, since their publication began over 25 years ago, that they are not. The high profile recently given to this issue has presented Statistics Canada with a welcome opportunity to restate its position on these issues.

Many individuals and organizations both in Canada and abroad understandably want to know how many people and families live in "poverty", and how these levels change. Reflecting this need, different groups have at different times developed various measures which purported to divide the population into those who were poor and those who were not.

In spite of these efforts, there is still no internationally-accepted definition of poverty - unlike measures such as employment, unemployment, gross domestic product, consumer prices, international trade and so on. This is not surprising, perhaps, given the absence of an international consensus on what poverty is and how it should be measured. Such consensus preceded the development of all other international standards.

The lack of an internationally-accepted definition has also reflected indecision as to whether an international standard definition should allow comparisons of well-being across countries compared to some international norm, or whether poverty lines should be established according to the norms within each country.

The proposed poverty lines have included, among others, relative measures (you are poor if your means are small compared to others in your population) and absolute measures (you are poor if you lack the means to buy a specified basket of goods and services designated as essential). Both approaches involve judgmental and, hence, ultimately arbitrary choices.

In the case of the relative approach, the fundamental decision is what fraction of the overall average or median income constitutes poverty. Is it one-half, one-third, or some other proportion? In the case of the absolute approach, the number of individual judgements required to arrive at a poverty line is far larger. Before anyone can calculate the minimum income needed to purchase the "necessities" of life, they must decide what constitutes a "necessity" in food, clothing, shelter and a multitude of other purchases, from transportation to reading material.

The underlying difficulty is due to the fact that poverty is intrinsically a question of social consensus, at a given point in time and in the context of a given country. Someone acceptably well off in terms of the standards in a developing country might well be considered desperately poor in Canada. And even within the same country, the outlook changes over time. A standard of living considered as acceptable in the previous century might well be viewed with abhorrence today.

It is through the political process that democratic societies achieve social consensus in domains that are intrinsically judgmental. The exercise of such value judgements is certainly not the proper role of Canada's national statistical agency which prides itself on its objectivity, and whose credibility depends on the exercise of that objectivity.

In Canada, the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Working Group on Social Development Research and Information was established to create a method of defining and measuring poverty. This group, created by Human Resources Development Canada and social services ministers in the various jurisdictions, has proposed a preliminary market basket measure of poverty - a basket of market-priced goods and services. The poverty line would be based on the income needed to purchase the items in the basket.

Once governments establish a definition, Statistics Canada will endeavour to estimate the number of people who are poor according to that definition. Certainly that is a task in line with its mandate and its objective approach. In the meantime, Statistics Canada does not and cannot measure the level of "poverty" in Canada.

For many years, Statistics Canada has published a set of measures called the low income cut-offs. We regularly and consistently emphasize that these are quite different from measures of poverty. They reflect a well-defined methodology which identifies those who are substantially worse off than the average. Of course, being significantly worse off than the average does not necessarily mean that one is poor.

Nevertheless, in the absence of an accepted definition of poverty, these statistics have been used by many analysts to study the characteristics of the relatively worst off families in Canada. These measures have enabled us to report important trends, such as the changing composition of this group over time. For example, 20 to 30 years ago the elderly were by far the largest group within the "low income" category, while more recently lone-parent families headed by women have grown in significance.

Many people both inside and outside government have found these and other insights to be useful. As a result, when Statistics Canada carried out a wide-ranging public consultation a decade ago, we were almost unanimously urged to continue to publish our low income analyses. Furthermore, in the absence of a generally accepted alternative methodology, the majority of those consulted urged us to continue to use our present definitions.

In the absence of politically-sanctioned social consensus on who should be regarded as "poor", some people and groups have been using the Statistics Canada low-income lines as a de facto definition of poverty. As long as that represents their own considered opinion of how poverty should be defined in Canada, we have no quarrel with them: all of us are free to have our own views. But they certainly do not represent Statistics Canada's views about how poverty should be defined.

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