Low income cut-off (LICO)
For several decades, Statistics Canada used LICO as its primary measure of relative poverty in Canada. Although it was not formally referred to as the ‘poverty line’, that is the purpose it served. It was a general measure that took the average family’s expenditure on food, shelter and clothing (adjusted for family and community size), added a margin of 20% to that, and that was it. If a family’s income fell below the related LICO threshold, it was counted as low income. The LICOs were occasionally re-based, updating the average family’s expenditure on food, shelter and clothing. What the LICO lacked in precision, it compensated for as a historical index: Canada’s general poverty level using the LICO could be traced as far back as 1968 and it allowed for the creation of historical maps such as the ones published with the 2006 Census income release.
Low income cut-off, after tax (LICO-AT)
The LICO was changed in the early 1990′s. In 1991, LICOs based on after-tax income were published for the first time. It seemed reasonable at first glance: Canada supposedly had a progressive taxation system with tax rates that rose relative to income bracket, and the LICOs should reflect that. Problem? The Census income data was the basis for the denominator (the Family Expenditure Survey – FamEx, and later Survey of Household spending – SHS, were the basis for the numerator). And the Census income tax data was notoriously unreliable prior to 2006, where it was available at all. So if reliable Census income tax data was not available prior to 2006, then how could the after-tax LICOs be reliable?
“There is no simple relationship, such as the average amount of taxes payable, to distinguish the two types of cut-offs. Although both sets of low income cut-offs and rates continue to be available, Statistics Canada prefers the use of the after-tax measure… The number of people falling below the cut-offs has been consistently lower on an after-tax basis than on a before-tax basis.”
Basically, the amount of income tax paid was assumed using the tax brackets, irrespective of how much actual tax was paid. This is inaccurate, as many rich (high-income and/or wealth) families could defer, offset or reduce all or part of their earnings through various registered investment plans, capital gains and other tax shelters. Lower-income families’ earnings on the other hand largely consist of wages and salaries, from which personal income taxes are usually already deducted. The lowest personal income tax rate is higher than the effective capital gains tax rate on the highest income tax bracket in Canada. Even if they do qualify for tax rebates, lower-income families are less likely to apply for or receive them as they do not generally benefit from professional tax preparation services. Some lower income families with little or no income do not file returns at all.
While it was no more accurate than it’s newly-dubbed ‘before-tax’ counterpart, the after-tax LICO did have one notable effect: by lowering the cut-offs across the board, it reduced the reported number of low-income Canadians.
Low-income measure (LIM)
Also introduced in 1991, the LIM is a fixed percentage (50%) of median adjusted family income based on family size. Canadians would only be considered low-income if their total family income was less than half the median same-size family’s income. Community size was not taken into account .
The other notable difference between LIMs and LICOs is that LIMs are based on the Survey of Labour and Income Dynamic (SLID), a more detailed, longitudinal survey of a small number of households sampled from the Census that includes both income and expenditure information.
Oh, and in many cases the more general LIMs also happened to further lower the income thresholds, reducing the reported number of low-income Canadians.
Introduced in 2000, unlike the LICO and LIM, which were relative measures of low-income based on average family income and/or consumption, the MBM measure was normative:
Bureaucrats got together to figure out what/how poor people should live and created a basket of goods based on these assumptions, which, not surprisingly, were rather questionable. Probably the most questionable of these was:
“The MBM thresholds are calculated as the cost of purchasing the following items: …Transportation costs, using public transit where available or costs associated with owning and operating a modest vehicle where public transit is not available.”
A low income family of four (two adults, two children) living in a major urban area (CA/CMA) where transit is available gets the cost of two transit passes added to its basket for transportation costs. Because the working poor in areas where transit is available presumably need not drive, not the Molly Maids, the delivery drivers, the general labour contractors, etc. This assumption was plainly wrong and was easily demonstrated to be so by a simple calculation (using Q47 of the 2006 20% sample Census). Nevertheless, it remained.
In addition to being an inaccurate measure, in many cases the MBMs further lowered income thresholds, reducing the reported number of low-income Canadians.
The historical ‘progress’ of low-income measurement in Canada can be demonstrated with an example. A family of four (two adults, two children) living in Montréal:
LICO-BT (2005) 38,610
LICO-AT (2005) 32,556
LIM-AT (2006) 30,358
MBM (2007) 26,560
With each subsequent new measure, the income cut-off was lowered, cut by nearly a third overall for that family of four living in Montréal. It seems ‘progress’ in Canadian poverty reduction is simply a matter of changing metrics.