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Study casts new light on poverty in the West Kootenay

Nine communities in region have more low-income residents than provincial average
A report shows nine West Kootenay communities are have more low-income persons than the provincial average. File photo

by John Boivin

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice

An analysis of Canadian tax filings sheds a new light on how widespread poverty is in the Kootenays. The analysis, done by the Rural Development Institute of Selkirk College, was included in the Columbia Basin Trust’s State of the Basin report released earlier this year.

“It helps paint a picture of what the status of poverty or low-income is in the community, so we can better support our communities,” says Jayme Jones, the researcher who wrote the analysis for the RDI.

The Rural Development Institute (RDI) had access to anonymized Revenue Canada data from every tax return done in the Columbia-Kootenay in 2018, and Jones worked up an analysis from that. The analysis uses a measurement called the Low Income Measure (LIM), an internationally recognized definition of income and poverty, which can be compared across regions and even countries.

A recent tweak to the algorithm by scientists has significantly increased the number of those living below the LIM threshold, which “better accurately represents the true scenario on the ground,” says Jones.

The report has some pretty sobering news for people working to support low-income families in this region. Nine communities in the West Kootenay have more low-income persons than the provincial average (18.1 per cent).

The highest low-income rate was in Slocan village, where two-in-five residents (40.3 per cent) are living below the LIM threshold. Silverton was at 29 per cent, New Denver 24.7 per cent, Kaslo 21.9 per cent, and Nelson 19.1 per cent. Areas below the provincial average included Nakusp, at 16.6 per cent, Castlegar at 13.8 per cent, and Rossland at 10.7 per cent.

(The old LIM had Slocan’s low-income rate in 2017 at 17 per cent, Kaslo and New Denver around eight per cent.)

The LIM is set by taking the average Canadian after-tax household income and dividing it by half. A person is considered to be in low-income when their after-tax household income is below the LIM threshold for their household size. But Jones cautions that a person living on half the median average income doesn’t automatically mean they’re living in desperation.

“It’s only one indicator,” Jones is careful to point out. “You have to look at many other indicators of well-being, to determine what true poverty or true prosperity are. Someone may make very low income, but feel very satisfied with their lifestyle and their well-being.”

However, the report also points out persons living with a low income may have difficulties accessing safe and affordable housing, nutritious food, adequate child care, transportation, and other necessary goods and services.

The report also highlighted changes to the demographics of low-income individuals and households in the region over the previous four years. Lone-parent households still make up the highest number of families living below the LIM threshold in this area, but that number has actually fallen the last few years.

At the other end are seniors, who have consistently had lower-than-average incidence of living on low-income in the Kootenays than the rest of the province. But also unlike lone-parent families, their numbers have gone up, from 11 per cent in 2014 to 15.2 per cent in 2018.

But the numbers only say what is happening; Jones cautions the why these trends are occurring is a lot more complex question, and needs more research.

Evidence-based decisions

The RDI’s analysis is all part of a larger goal to help politicians and bureaucrats implement policies based on facts, for the best results.

“It’s to help evidence-based decision making, to help inform, to help have these conversations, help spark the ‘Hey, why is it the Slocan Valley has a higher percentage of folks that are low-income, according to this measure? What does it mean?’

“It’s something local governments and communities can do to look at that. It can also be used as a baseline. If actions are taken, we can compare the LIM before and after to see how well the policies are working.”

There’s another caution to using the study as a guide to current circumstances. The data used is pre-pandemic, and doesn’t capture the economic impact COVID-19 has had on those with low income.

Jones says as newer data becomes available, a better understanding of the impact of COVID on those experiencing low income will emerge.