Show me the money, in Northern Ontario

May 9, 2016 - You can’t make a living in the North, right? That is what we northerners are often told. The real money is down south or out west. Well, not so fast. 

A recent report on median incomes in Northern Ontario done for Northern Policy Institute shows that we do quite well on this measure. Median (as opposed to average) income is the point at which 50% of the population is making above that amount and 50% is making below that amount.  It gives, to quote the report author, “a much better picture of how the typical” person or family is doing.  While average income is easily influenced by small numbers of people taking home big paydays, median income gives a better picture of the financial health of most people in a region.

It may not be great news for some, but it is good news overall. Seven of our eleven districts are at or above the Canadian median income. Four are at or above the Ontario median. Greater Sudbury and Thunder Bay have the highest median incomes at $32,938 and $31,191 respectively. These numbers compare favourably to the Canadian median of $29,878 and the Ontario median of $30,526. Rainy River, Kenora and Cochrane districts all come in over the $30,000 per year level, while Manitoulin has the lowest median income at $23,662 per year.

Good news is also found when looking at Aboriginal income earners in several Northern districts. Many of our Aboriginal people earn more than the provincial and national median incomes of between $20,000 and $22,000. In some cases, well above. In Greater Sudbury the median income for Aboriginal people is in excess of $26,000 per year. In fact, Aboriginal incomes exceed the provincial and national medians in Greater Sudbury, Cochrane, Sudbury and Nipissing.

Income, of course, is made up of many sources, including government transfers and money you earn from work. Money earned from work is called “market income”. The share of income made up of earned or “market” income for the Aboriginal population is at the provincial level (80%) in Cochrane and at the national level (82%) in Greater Sudbury.

The percentage of market income for our Aboriginal neighbours is, however, consistently below their fellow northerners. There is a similar and consistent gap in total median income as well. Given that we know significant numbers of our Aboriginal population are under or unemployed this is not a surprising finding. It does, however, demonstrate yet again that the region’s economy will be made better off as we continue to successfully address the challenges in these communities.

The news is a bit better when looking at income inequality overall. Our middle class, defined in this case as incomes falling in the range of those earned by roughly 60% of Canadians, is in most districts larger than the Canadian middle class. We have more people earning those “middle class incomes” than the rest of the country has overall. Every district except Kenora appears to be disproportionately middle class relative to Canada.

In about half the Northern districts income inequality itself is low relative to the Canadian average. However, in certain districts the income gap remains wide. In some cases (Kenora, Manitoulin and Timiskaming) this is because more people fall into the lowest income ranges and in others (Greater Sudbury) it is because a slightly larger group fall into the very highest income ranges.

The best news perhaps comes in the rate of income growth (adjusted for inflation). Between 1996 and 2011 (the most recent years available) median income in every northern district grew faster than the rate for Ontario as a whole. In those same years, nine out of ten northern districts outstripped the growth rate achieved overall in Canada.

All in all, if you are looking for someone to show you the money, (as Cuba Gooding Jr. was in Jerry McGuire) you may get more individual flash out west. There is no disputing that here in Northern Ontario, collectively, we are getting some “Kwan” of our own.

Charles Cirtwill is President and CEO of Northern Policy Institute. First published in Northern Ontario Business, May 2016.

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