Domesday File #2: Missing the news in the stats

Domesday File: An occasional series inspired by the Domesday Book, the medieval survey of wealth and human resources 

It is interesting to track media coverage when large amounts of data like this week’s Census report on families are released. For many people, what reporters and editors chose to highlight will be the extent of their exposure to the vast amount of information collected during last summer’s intelligence gathering exercise. Taking their cues from Statistics Canada on-line release, most of the national media went with what the agency suggested was news – the fact that as the Globe and Mail headline writer put it “Canadians are increasingly going it alone.” The CBC took a similar tack, also reporting that for the first time one-person households were the most common living arrangement, edging out the former number one, couples with children.

While it was newish, this development was hardly dramatic. The previous 2011 census had reported a virtual tie, with couples with children ahead of one-person households by just 75 households, the continuation of a trend going back at least to 2001. And the ascent of the one-person household was old news in Nova Scotia. In this province and in New Brunswick that category overtook the couple with kids grouping sometime between 2006 and 2011. And in Newfoundland, it hasn’t happened yet – there one-person households are out-numbered both by childless couples and couples with children.

Another focus in some of the national reporting was on the increase of adult children living with their parents – a particular concern in Toronto, and a valid story at the centre of the Canadian media universe: 20-34-year-olds camping out with Mom and/or Dad jumped from 44.6% in the 2011 Census to 47.3% in 2016. But in Nova Scotia, the percentage actually dropped from 30.3 in 2011 to 29.7 in 2016 and has not increased since the 2001 Census. It also dropped in Newfoundland, but went up about one percentage point in New Brunswick and PEI.

In times gone by when local newspapers had more resources and a greater commitment to their readers there would have been some good localized coverage of the latest Census release. That may still come, but in the meantime, local media either ignored the Census story or took the same approach as the national media. One of the few places to try a Nova Scotia spin on this is the Nova Scotia Finance department website here.

The Finance department number crunchers give some context to the living alone phenomenon, pointing out that the trend has been most noticeable in the Atlantic provinces, “reflecting the faster aging of the population in the region.” The department’s post goes on to report that “the rise of one-person households, multigenerational households and couples without children can be interpreted as a result of the aging population. As the large baby boom cohort ages into later stages of life, a growing number of widows and widowers live alone and households headed by baby boomers are increasingly ‘childless’ as their children reach adulthood and move out.”

Lone-parent families 

Our aging population is a familiar story, but the Finance report on the Census identified another category in which Nova Scotia – and in fact all of the Atlantic provinces – stood apart. The percentage of lone parents and children living in lone-parent families increased from Census 2011 to Census 2016. Finance reported the fact that 26.0% of children aged 0-14 lived in a lone-parent family, up from 25.1% in 2011.

As one might expect, Finance did not delve into the numbers, the media are supposed to do that. But further examination of the Census data reveals that with more than one-quarter of its children living in lone-parent families, Nova Scotia is far above the national average. Nationally less than one in five children (19.2%) live in lone-parent families. Six provinces are above the national average, led by Nova Scotia, which at 26.0% is followed closely by New Brunswick (24.3%) and Newfoundland (23.2%). All six above the average, except the newly affluent Saskatchewan, are among the traditional “have-not” provinces. Wealthy Alberta, at 16.1%, is the lowest.

Nova Scotia also had the highest percentage of kids living with a single parent in 2011. Only New Brunswick had a bigger increase between 2011 and 2016 while the four western provinces all saw decreases. This correlation between lone-parent families and economic geography applies within Nova Scotia as well, with Cape Breton showing the highest percentage of lone parent families and Halifax the lowest.

The connection between one-parent households and poverty is well established. Nova Scotia not only has a higher percentage of lone parent households than any other province, the income gap between lone parent households and couple families is greater here. Moreover, in Nova Scotia, 40% of lone-parent families (representing 50,000 parents and children) are low-income. The Canadian figure is 36%. The only statistical factor preventing Nova Scotia from having the highest rate of child poverty appears to be that lone parents here have fewer children than the three provinces with higher child poverty rates than Nova Scotia – New Brunswick, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Poverty stats under-reported

Fourth from the bottom on child poverty is little solace, given that the most recent low income statistics reveal that in 2015 Nova Scotia had the country’s highest overall poverty rate. At 17.5%, the overall rate was the worst since 1976 and represented only the second time since 1976 that Nova Scotia has claimed the dubious honour of the worst rate of poverty in the country.

Surely that’s news worth ferreting out and reporting. But like the facts about lone-parent families, the poverty stats have pretty much flown under the radar since their release by Stats Canada in May. The indifference is even harder to accept, given that the release came towards the end of a provincial election campaign during which one of the major parties made the poverty issue the central focus of its platform. And it wasn’t just the poverty rates that were troubling. Other highlights of the release (CANSIM 206-0041) included:

  • Nova Scotia families had the lowest median income in Canada;
  • Nova Scotia families had the lowest median market income;
  • And also the lowest after tax median income in the country.

Perhaps the media and our opinion leaders have decided that the poor economy is no longer news. Maybe the facts about sagging employment, the aging population, economic stagnation and poverty have become routine. Or perhaps the media and our policy makers and opinion leaders have decided that there’s more profit in embracing a sunnier alternative reality.

A final note

Last month Stats Canada reported a big increase in unemployment in June, the result of an increase in working age population and the labour force, with very little increase in jobs. As suggested at the time, this increase in unemployment could have been a blip, and province-wide it appears it was. Unemployment in Nova Scotia in July dropped sharply from the previous month and from July 2016. This was the result of a modest increase in employment (a good thing) and a larger drop in the labour force (not such a good thing but positive for the unemployment rate).

In Halifax, where the June increase in unemployment was most marked, the glass continued to be half full (or empty). Employment, full-time employment and labour force were all up from June and unemployment was down a bit. However, compared with July of 2016, the news is still not great. As the table shows, employment is still down and unemployment way up from a year ago.

 

                                          July 2016         July 2017     Change

Working age population   353,600           358,900       + 5,300

Labour Force                       242,200           243,300       +1,100

Employment                         229,600           227,200       -2,400

Full-time employment       192,400           186,400       -6,000

Unemployment                       12,600              16,000       +3,400

Unemployment rate                   5.2%                 6.6%           27%

Is it a two-month blip or trend? As they often say on the news, time will tell.

-30-

About Richard Starr

RICHARD STARR has had careers as a journalist, public servant, broadcaster, political staffer and freelance policy adviser. He is author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, appearing in everything from Atlantic Insight to Atlantic Progress. A lifelong student of Maritime history, Starr is married to playwright and former MP Wendy Lill. They live in Dartmouth.
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