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This is an archived article published in 2004
FCM report warns of erosion of
quality of life in Canadian cities

Basic needs | Fairness and equity | Local economy | Natural environment | Personal goals | Social inclusion |

9 May 2004: The quality of life in Canada’s cities is at risk, according to a report produced by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM). It finds that, despite general improvements in rates of post-secondary education, employment growth and home-ownership, quality of life deteriorated for a growing number of people during the 1990s. In addition, improvements in income and poverty rates since 1996 have been offset by a growing income gap, housing affordability problems and changes to social programs.

The 2004 report, the third in a series, takes a detailed look at six indicators of quality of life in 20 Canadian cities that account for 40 per cent of Canada’s population.

FCM President Gatineau Mayor Yves Ducharme said the report illustrated the urgent need for a New Deal for Canada’s communities. “The report provides a clear picture of the broad range of issues that affect the quality of life in our communities. It also illustrates the urgent need for new tools and new partnerships to stop the erosion of our quality of life and build sustainable communities,” Mr Ducharme added.

The report draws on data from FCM’s Quality of Life Reporting System (QOLRS) and focuses on six quality of life factors: local economy, natural environment; personal goals and aspirations; fairness and equity; basic needs; and social inclusion. The report also looks at underlying demographic trends affecting the 20 survey cities.

Subsequent reports will be published later in 2004 to provide in-depth analysis of many of the topics highlighted in the current report.

Basic needs
The majority of families and individuals living in the 20 QOLRS municipalities had incomes sufficient to meet their need for food, clothing and housing. But stagnant or declining incomes, rapidly growing housing costs, and reductions in social assistance are pushing many individuals and families toward the margins of society.

Poverty rates for the QOLRS population as a whole remained largely unchanged between 1991 and 2001. Family poverty was marginally lower in 2001 than 1991, but poverty among single unattached individuals was marginally higher in 2001. However, poverty among individuals—35 per cent of the urban population—was three times the rate of family poverty.

Within this group, poverty was highest among people 15 to 24. An important exception was female-headed lone-parent families with young children under 12. Changes to National Child Benefit programs were likely one important factor, as rates of poverty for this group fell from 60 to 50 per cent of all female-headed lone-parent headed families.

While life in the 20 QOLRS municipalities remains affordable for the majority of families and individuals, low and modest income individuals in 19 of the 20 municipalities were unable to afford their basic needs. This ‘affordability gap’ affects those on social assistance, people with minimum wage jobs, and those with sporadic employment.

A good example of the affordability gap is shown by what happened to rental accommodation in the 20 QORLS municipalities. In 1991, more than 40 per cent of households in the QOLRS municipalities were in rental housing. During the next 10 years, rental construction stopped almost entirely, falling from 31 per cent of starts to 8 per cent. As a result, rents at the lowest end of the rental market increased much faster than the overall rental market.

At the same time, the poorest 20 per cent of the population saw their inflation-adjusted income decline significantly. Between 1991 and 2001, the proportion of renter households in the 20 QOLRS municipalities spending 30 per cent or more of their income on shelter grew from 35 to 41 per cent. The proportion spending 50 per cent or more grew from 16 to 20 per cent.

Fairness and equity
Middle and lower-income households in the 20 QOLRS communities lost ground, and households from ‘minority’ or ‘vulnerable’ populations did not share in the benefits of economic growth.

Tax-filer data indicates that only the wealthiest 30 per cent of families and 20 per cent of individuals in the 20 QOLRS municipalities enjoyed any increase in inflation-adjusted income between 1990 and 2000.

The before-tax incomes of low- and modest-income individuals—the bottom 30 per cent on the income scale of all unattached individuals—decreased by 10 per cent or more during this time. Median-income families saw their before-tax inflation-adjusted income decrease by 6.2 per cent.

In general, income growth among “minority” or “vulnerable” groups was substantially lower than their “majority” counterparts. Female-headed lone-parent families were an exception, with this group experiencing income growth that exceeded the rate for all families.

Another measure of income equality relates to the difference in income growth and total income between different demographic and ethnic groups. In general, income growth of ‘minority’ or ‘vulnerable’ groups was substantially lower during the period 1991-2001 than their ‘majority’ counterparts. The exception was female-headed lone-parent families, with income growth exceeding the rate for all families.

A simple measure of the distribution of resources is the ratio of society’s highest to lowest income earners. The growing size of this ratio is called the ‘Income Gap’ and corresponds to a growing inequality in the distribution of income and wealth.

Local economy
The 20 Quality of Life Reporting System (QOLRS) municipalities saw improved economic performance overall, especially during the second half of the 1990s, with strong growth in new businesses, fewer bankruptcies (1998-2002), more investment in real estate, and falling unemployment.

Unemployment rates in all but two of the 20 municipalities were below rates in the rest of Canada, and the average unemployment rate fell from almost nine per cent to 6.1 per cent between 1991 and 2001.

Significant growth in the inflation-adjusted value of building permits occurred in some of the 20 municipalities, reflecting increasing levels of investment in residential, commercial, and industrial real estate. However, this growth was not shared by all. Although seven municipalities saw the value of building permits grow by 50 per cent over the 10-year period, an equal number experienced negative or near-negative growth.

A long-term concern is the declining Labour Force Replacement ratio, which is approaching the crucial replacement ratio of 1.00, where fewer people will be ready to enter the labour force than leave it. Although this does not pose an immediate threat to the QOLRS municipalities, an aging population and low birth rates will heighten the importance of immigration and internal migration. Those municipalities not already benefiting from strong in-migration will face the greatest challenges in maintaining their labour force.

Natural environment
The Quality of Life Reporting System (QOLRS) includes a series of indicators of the quality of the environment in the 20 QOLRS municipalities. These indicators measure changes in air quality, transit usage, water consumption, wastewater treatment and waste recycling.

Strong population and economic growth have placed considerable pressure on the environment in the 20 QOLRS municipalities. Municipal governments have responded to this pressure through a range of investments in public transit, wastewater treatment, and solid-waste management. Nevertheless, indications of progress are mixed.

For example, the automobile remains the favoured mode of transport for commuters across the 20 municipalities. And, as automobile usage increased in 11 of the 20 municipalities, walking and cycling declined in 14, while transit usage declined in 11.

Rates of recycling and diversion have been rising steadily since 1991 across all 20 municipalities. Recycling rates grew from an average of 11 per cent in 1991 to more than 18 per cent by 2002. At the same time, rates of waste diversion grew from 20 per cent in 1991 to 32 per cent by 2002.

These increases are due to new programs that cover a broader range of recyclable or recoverable materials. Municipalities have also succeeded in expanding the coverage of existing programs to reach a wider proportion of the population, including those living in multi-unit buildings.

But while municipal efforts to reduce landfill waste helped delay the need to expand existing facilities or develop new landfill sites, the total amount of municipal waste sent to landfills each year has continued to increase.

Most residents of the 20 QOLRS municipalities are served by centralized sewer systems. Levels of secondary and tertiary wastewater treatment are high and have been rising significantly.

With the exception of ozone, air quality in QOLRS municipalities is generally within the acceptable range, with the important exception of groundlevel ozone concentration.

Personal goals and aspirations
Trends for the attainment of personal goals like higher education, better employment, higher income and home ownership were positive in the 20 Quality of Life Reporting System (QOLRS) municipalities, but gains in household income were concentrated at the top end of the scale.

During the 1990s, the number of people completing post-secondary education in the 20 QOLRS municipalities increased consistently. By 2001, the proportion of residents in the 20 municipalities with a post-secondary certificate, diploma or degree was approaching 25 per cent, well above the rest of Canada (16 per cent in 2001).

Employment growth expanded along with population growth. The result was constant rates of employment for the QOLRS population as a whole, with slight declines in participation rates for males and youth.

Average employment rates in the QOLRS municipalities during this period were more than four percentage points higher than the rest of Canada. While employment rates among males in the 20 QOLRS municipalities fell to just under 70 per cent by 2001, the employment rate within the female labour force rose to a level just below 59 per cent.

The rate of homeownership increased, and average family and household inflation-adjusted income growth during the second half of the decade reversed the significant declines that had taken place between 1991 and 1996.

However, real income growth eluded most people, with apparent improvement in income resulting from rapid growth at the top end of the income scale. Median family incomes grew significantly in only a limited number of medium-sized municipalities and declined in half of the 20 QOLRS municipalities. Median family income growth during the second half of the 1990s did not make up for the significant decline in incomes between 1990 and 1995.

Social inclusion
The strength of Canadian municipalities cannot be measured strictly in terms of overall trends in income and economic growth. Quality of life is a function of active social networks and public spaces and services that support the inclusion of all residents in city life. The loss of government-sponsored social safety nets and the decline of the two-parent family as the ‘social core’ of society require individuals to play a greater role in social networks.

Several trends during the decade from 1991 to 2001 suggest that civic engagement declined in the 20 Quality of Life Reporting System (QOLRS) municipalities. Fewer people voted in federal elections, particularly in the 20 municipalities, and participation in municipal elections was consistently low. Both the proportion of people making charitable donations and the number of volunteers fell consistently in almost all QOLRS municipalities. Although the total amount of charitable donations increased, the donations came from fewer people.

Promoting meaningful interaction among an increasingly diverse and potentially divided population is another aspect of social inclusion. This interaction is necessary to avoid social isolation and social divisions. An important form of interaction occurs within the context of work. However, new immigrants and indigenous people appear to face barriers to participation in the labour force, as shown by both employment and labour-force participation rates.

Labour-force participation rates for new immigrants failed to rise between 1991 and 2001. They remained eight percentage points lower than those for non-immigrants and fell significantly in several larger urban centres. Unemployment rates among new immigrants also remained higher than among non-immigrants, suggesting that immigrants need more help integrating into the economy and society.

Employment among indigenous people living in the QOLRS municipalities declined during the decade, falling to eight percentage points lower than the QOLRS average by 2001. Overall unemployment rates among Aboriginal people living in the QOLRS municipalities were more than twice the rate of the QOLRS average.

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