Aggregate Data Misses the Granular Misfortunes

It’s a time of year when we are inclined to revel in consumer excess, feel-good charity, and moral sentimentality. We may even take time to watch an adaptation of Charles […]
Published on March 17, 2020

It’s a time of year when we are inclined to revel in consumer excess, feel-good charity, and moral sentimentality. We may even take time to watch an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”.  

For those of us who are privileged, we may even scoff at Alastair Sims’ lines: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” This, however, underestimates the poverty and inequality still faced by so many today.

Despite our best efforts towards eliminating poverty and inequality, there are large segments of society that remain left behind.  Problems seem to outpace rhetoric and worse, despite their assurances, governments face huge challenges in meeting their obligations and commitments.  

We face two tragedies, the one is our own domestic challenge with poverty and inequality, and the second is that of the estimated 828 million people globally living in slums; expected to reach three billion in the next thirty years.1

In September of 2000, 191 member states agreed to United Nations Millennium Development Goals to: 

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger;
  • Achieve universal primary education;
  • Promote gender equality and empower women;
  • Reduce child mortality;
  • Improve maternal health;
  • Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases;
  • Ensure environmental sustainability; and
  • Develop a global partnership for development.

These goals were to have been achieved by 2015.

In 2015 the United Nations passed a new resolution -Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (ASD), with a new set of goals to be achieved by 2030 2:

“The resolution resolved to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources. To create conditions for sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and decent work for all, taking into account different levels of national development and capacities.”3

Canada’s response included an undertaking of the Opportunity for All – Canada’s first poverty reduction strategy towards the eradication of poverty: a vision for a Canada without poverty; and an interim goal of reducing poverty in Canada by fifty percent by 2030.4  

Canada has also contributed to the governance of the Bretton Woods institutions – The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank Group, founded in 1944 in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire to regulate the international monetary and financial order after World War II.  The IMF and World Bank are primary institutions for the achievement of sustainable development, at which Canada is one of the largest members.  

Canada’s presidency at the G7 in 2017-18 amplified our obligation to the ASD goals and focus on our commitment and values for human rights; for instance, Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy for improved access to education for women and girls, advancing good governance and tackling corruption.  

Canada has also advocated for better working conditions and pay for foreign workers through international agreements such as the United States, Mexico and Canada Trade Agreement (USMC).

Further, Canada has led the G7 in promoting anti-corruption, anti-bribery and anti-money laundering programs for combating the financing of terrorism; promoting policies that foster trust and influence amongst recipient economies for ethical, sustainable and transparent exchange of foreign aid and development.   

Despite Canada’s domestic and international efforts to prevent bribery of public officials and concealment of proceeds of corrupt acts, the antecedents to poverty, inequality, corruption, and economic instability remain colossal.  

Domestically, Canada defines poverty as “The condition of a person who is deprived of the resources, means, choices and power necessary to acquire and maintain a basic level of living standards and to facilitate integration and participation in society.”5

Canada’s Official Poverty Line is calculated using the Market Basket Measure (MBM) based on the cost of a basket of food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and other items for individuals and families representing a modest, basic standard of living, and based on the unique economic and social characteristics of fifty different regions and nineteen specific communities across Canada.6

According to the 2017 Canadian Income Survey (CIS), the Poverty Reduction Strategy’s interim target of reducing poverty by twenty percent by 2020 had been reached a full three years ahead of schedule. According to the report, poverty reduction to nine and a half percent was the lowest poverty rate in Canadian history.7

In many instances aggregate data misses the granular misfortune felt by significant segments of society. Too much is celebrated based on the arbitrary and subjective imposition of what is determined as ‘basic needs’ for the MBM, or what is considered as a ‘modest living standard’. 

The following are examples of how subjective definitions and aggregate data misses the granular reality. 

For instance, ninety-three percent of respondents to a survey by Statistics Canada asked about the “market basket measure” for poverty said that measures for housing costs were “too low”.8

According to Fred Victor, a social service organization in Toronto, there are 9,200 homeless sleeping outdoors in Toronto, with an occupancy rate of 98% in Toronto shelters every night.9  Vancouver recorded 2,223 residents identified as homeless, 614 living on the street and 1,609 living in shelters, including emergency shelters, detox centres, safe houses and hospitals, with no fixed address.10

While poverty rates have decreased according to the CIS, there have been increases in income disparity: Between 2000-2016, the proportion of Ontarians under the Low Income Measure decreased by eleven percent, but the income gap between the poorest and richest Ontarians grew by ten percent.11  

According to Toronto’s Vital Signs Report for 2019/20, a white person over the age of thirty-five has typically experienced huge growth in inflation-adjusted income, often sixty percent or more over the last thirty years. Meanwhile, racialized populations, newcomers, and people under the age of thirty-five have seen no increase in income whatsoever. The top twenty percent have had their net worth increase by an average of more than $600,000 from 1999 to 2016, while the bottom twenty percent have seen their net worth grow by just $2,100.12

According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Canada’s 100 highest paid CEOs netted 209 times more than the average worker made in 2016. The top highest 100 paid CEOs make, on average, $10.4 million — 209 times the average income of $49,738, up from 193 times more than in 2015.13

The report’s author, Senior Economist David Macdonald, is quoted as noting: “Canada’s corporate executives were among the loudest critics of a new fifteen dollar minimum wage in provinces like Ontario and Alberta, meanwhile the highest paid among them were raking in record-breaking earnings.”14

The proportion of single-person households accessing food banks has also increased by forty-five percent since 2007. According to some reports, the overall depth of need has increased, with visits to food banks growing three times faster than unique individuals.15

Within the First Nations context, there were 4,300 Indigenous children aged zero to four reported as foster children living in private homes in 2016. Although Indigenous children accounted for 7.7% of all children aged zero to four, they accounted for more than one-half (51.2%) of all foster children in this age group.16

One-quarter (26.2%) of Inuit, 24.2% of First Nations and 11.3% of Métis lived in dwellings that require major repairs. These rates were highest for Inuit living in Inuit Nunangat (31.5%) and Status First Nations people living on reserve (44.2%). 17

The proportion of First Nations people who lived in a dwelling that needed major repairs was more than three times higher on reserve than off-reserve. 

Suicide rates among First Nations people are 24.3 deaths per 100,000 person-years, three times the rate of 8.0 deaths per 100,000 person-years at risk among non-Indigenous people.18 And the suicide rate for people living on reserve was about twice as high as that among those living off-reserve. Suicide rates being the highest in youth and young adults (fifteen to twenty-four years) among First Nations males and Inuit males and females.19

In 2016/2017, Aboriginal adults accounted for upwards of twenty-eight percent of admissions to provincial, territorial correctional services and federal correctional services, while representing 4.1% of the Canadian adult population.20 

Aboriginal youth accounted for forty-six percent of admissions to correctional services in 2016/2017, while representing eight percent of the Canadian youth population.  Aboriginal youth admissions went from twenty-one percent in 2006/2007 to thirty-five percent in 2015/2016 and reached thirty-seven percent in 2016/2017.21

Manitoba (seventy-four percent) and Saskatchewan (seventy-six percent) had the largest Aboriginal admissions to custody. 22 

These statistics should provide pause for those who find solace in the aggregation of human misfortune into a basket measure of success.  

And if moral obligation does not suffice for eradicating poverty, there are economic reasons that provide incentive.  There are, for instance, lost tax revenues and increased costs to the health and justice system for maintaining people in poverty.  It has been calculated that the cost of poverty in Ontario alone in 2019 was between $27.1 – $33 billion per year. 23

Like the arbitrary and subjective imposition of what is determined to being the ‘basics needs’ or what is considered a ‘modest living standard’ within Canada, statements about ending poverty, combating inequalities, building peaceful just and inclusive societies, creating conditions for decent work for all on a global scale are also problematic.  

One person’s treasure may be another person’s garbage. The inclusion of terms like resources, basic, integration, and participation are subjective.  How these definitions apply to someone in Canada do not have the same significance or standard as to the slum dweller in Calcutta.  

At best they may provide national targets that are more concrete and objective; but applied on a global scale, they are disparate, subjective, and at best contribute to a perpetuation of global disparities.  

These goals do not, for instance, aim to raise the poverty level of the slum dweller in Mexico to the same level as that of a person living at the poverty level in Portugal, Spain, or Greece.  

The terminology used in combating poverty and inequality is already indicating a defeatist slant evolving from approaches that aimed at elimination to sustaining.  If we are not careful, sustaining may soon evolve into managing and controlling.

Globally, humanity is now interwoven into a complex web; what happens in one part of the world will not remain isolated, it will reverberate throughout the globe affecting all of us everywhere.  

With an estimated 3 billion people expected to be living in slums within the next thirty years, it is unlikely that current programs and trends will make a sufficiently significant difference towards achieving the ASD goals.

Systemic inequality contributes to corruption, which in turn affects economies by undermining key state functions such as fiscal policy, market confidence and democracy. The risks to social order due to inequality, marginalization, and ineffective policies are as dangerous as the threat posed by climate change.  

We are well past the point when lofty-sounding statements can be relied upon to punt the proverbial can down the road; it is time to effect meaningful and transformative changes from those in positions of leadership and influence.  

Canada’s own treatment of our First Nations Peoples provides an indication of how aggregating achievements can hide the reality of entire communities.

The gaps at present are too numerous and in many instances aggravating rather than mitigating inequalities. It is incumbent on those of us in positions of privilege to take the time to understand the world we live in and to differentiate between the anecdotal, empirical, and moral drivers of policy-making for demanding realistic goals, measures, and outcomes.  

[show_more more=”SeeEndnotes” less=”Close Endnotes”]

  1. World Economic Forum, These eco-friendly, affordable housing settlements around the world are under threat;
  2. World Health Organization, Millennium Development Goals (MDG),
  3. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 25 September 2015[without reference to a Main Committee (A/70/L.1)] 70/1. Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development;
  4. Canada’s First Poverty Reduction Strategy;
  5. Canada’s First Poverty Reduction Strategy;
  6. Ibid
  7. Canada reaches lowest poverty rate in history;
  8. Official poverty line currently lowballs housing costs, Canadians told Statistics Canada, By Jolson Lim. Published on Aug 28, 2019;
  9. Facts about Homelessness in Toronto;
  10. Homeless Count;
  11. Official poverty line currently lowballs housing costs, Canadians told Statistics Canada, By Jolson Lim. Published on Aug 28, 2019;
  12. Toronto Vital Signs Report,
  13. Record-breaking CEO pay now 209 times more than average worker;
  14. Ibid
  15. Official poverty line currently low balls housing costs, Canadians told Statistics Canada, By Jolson Lim. Published on Aug 28, 2019;
  16. First Nations People, Métis and Inuit in Canada: Diverse and Growing Populations;
  17. Ibid
  18. Ibid
  19. Suicide among First Nations people, Métis and Inuit (2011-2016): Findings from the 2011 Canadian Census Health and Environment Cohort (CanCHEC);
  20. Adult and youth correctional statistics in Canada, 2016/2017;
  21. Adult and youth correctional statistics in Canada, 2016/2017;
  22. Ibid
  23. Cost of Poverty in Ontario 2019;


Anil Anand is a Research Associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Anil served as a police officer for 29 years; during his career, some of his assignments included divisional officer, undercover narcotics officer, and intelligence officer. He has worked in Professional Standards, Business Intelligence, Corporate Communications, the Ipperwash Inquiry (judicial public inquiry), and Interpol.

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