The Mayor’s speech and the missing facts

I couldn’t help but notice the headline across the top of page 6 in last Thursday’s Chronicle-Herald : “Halifax on the rise, says Savage.” Accompanied by a photo of the mayor himself, the story reported on Savage’s speech to a luncheon put on by the chamber of commerce and the Halifax partnership.

Boosterism was the order of the day, and the mayor provided it, both with his rhetoric (“This is Halifax’s time, time for big ideas and decisive moves”), ambitious growth targets (population of 550,000 by 2031) and some statistics.

For the latter, Savage highlighted population growth (to 426,000 from 414,000 over the past two years) particularly in 25 to 39 age group – up 2,560 in 2015 and 3,800 in 2016. “These are the people that every city covets,” said the mayor – and who would not agree that growth in this key demographic is a good thing? According to the Herald report, the mayor also looked at the bright side of the current plague of traffic snarls and closed sidewalks, implying they are the result of it being “Halifax’s time.”

In the mayor’s defence, his speech was par for the course at luncheons sponsored by business groups. A big part of the contemporary political leader’s job seems to consist of cheerleading for business and promoting city or province to business leaders. Facts and stats are selected to further that objective, while nuance and balance are not part of the deal.

With regard to the ubiquitous construction, it’s hard to measure how much of that has to do with economic growth and how much is just to take advantage of federal dollars to replace infrastructure that’s simply worn out and in need of replacement.

The population stuff is easier to calibrate since it comes from Statistics Canada. The mayor referred to the increase in 25-39 year-olds as his favourite statistic and it’s no wonder. There are not many other stats at hand to support an excessively cheery outlook. Indeed, some facts and stats could lead in the opposite direction, especially for rural Nova Scotians and young Haligonians.

Demographics mixed

Take for example the mayor’s favourite, demographics. While a surge of immigration played a big part, another chunk of the city’s growth came from people moving in from other parts of the province. Thus, while Halifax was growing by almost 12,000 between 2014 and 2016, the rest of the Province’s population dropped by nearly 5,400. The same pattern existed for the 25-39 year-olds. While Halifax gained nearly 6,400, the rest of the province lost over 2,000 members of this sought-after demographic. A small percentage moved to Halifax, the rest left the province.

Other examples: while Halifax’s 25-39 age group was growing, the feeder bracket for this demographic was not. The number of 15-24 year-olds in Halifax dropped by 2,300 between 2014 and 2016. Throw in the fact that Halifax’s over-65 population increased by almost 9% and you will understand why – the mayor’s selective statistics notwithstanding – our aging population trend continues.

Then there is the confounding state of employment in Halifax. Despite appearances to the contrary, as reported in July and in August statistics show that the number of jobs in Halifax is not keeping up with the increase in population. This leads to a jump in the unemployment rate and questions whether the city will retain many of those working age individuals who are contributing to the current increased population.

Employment still dropping

The latest monthly employment numbers from StatsCanada – coming out two days after the mayor’s speech – provided more troubling news on that score. They showed a continuation of the negative trend that began in the summer of 2016 when employment was 231,500 and the unemployment rate was only 5.2%. Comparing October 2017 to a year earlier shows the following.

Date                                     October 2016           October 2017     Change

Employment                       226,200                   222,900           -3,300

Full-time employment      189,100                    185,500           -3,600

Unemployment                     13,500                      16,800             3,300

Unemployment rate                5.6%                         6.9%             23.2%

 

In a nutshell, with the size of the workforce unchanged employment dropped by 3,300 and unemployment rose by the same amount between October 2016 and 2017, leading to a big increase in the unemployment rate. The 25-44 age group – including the hankered-for 25-39 group – fared slightly better than the labour force as a whole, with an unemployment rate of 5.7% in October. That rate was in the middle of the pack among the 34 census metropolitan areas (CMAs) reported by Statistics Canada.

That middling result was in sharp contrast to the youth labour force. Unemployment among 15 to 24 year-olds was 17.1% in October, second highest in Canada and up a rather startling 45% from October 2016. That 45% increase represents the rate. The number of unemployed youth has gone from 4,500 to 6,100 – an increase of 36%. And think how much worse those numbers could have been if so many of these young people hadn’t left town (see above).

Youth unemployment, like poverty, has been talked about for so long- and has been in double digits seemingly forever – that no one pays much attention. (Except when it goes down a bit and gives the government a chance to pat itself on the back). Maybe that should change. October marked the sixth month in a row that the rate of unemployment among young Halifax workers exceeded 16%. The last time the Halifax rate hovered around such a high level for half the year was in 2002. (CANSIM 282-0128).

It may be a bit of an overstatement to throw out a headline such as “Halifax faces a youth unemployment crisis.” But there’s at least as much evidence to support such a headline as there is the “On the rise…” that trumpeted the mayor’s speech to the business crowd.

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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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