Monday, June 23, 2003
Source: Globe and Mail
Canada has become a tougher place for immigrants who come here to improve their lot. Most are probably better off than they would have been had they stayed put, but relative to other Canadians, the trend of the past two decades is unmistakable: Poverty rates have risen substantially for most new immigrants.
That conclusion comes from an analysis of census data released last week by Statistics Canada. As usual, Statscan uses the term “low income” to describe the financial condition of many immigrant families, but many regard its published low-income rates as poverty rates by another name.
The growing prevalence of immigrant poverty is most obvious among the most recent arrivals — those who have been in Canada for five years or less.
In 1980, 24.6 per cent of them fell below Statscan’s low-income line, which varies according to the number of people in a family and the size of the city in which they live. A decade later, 31.3 per cent were below the line and by 2000, the proportion had climbed to 35.8 per cent.
“The increase in low-income rates was widespread among recent immigrants in all education levels, all age groups and language types and for those in all family types,” according to the study by Garnett Picot and Feng Hou.
Their research focused on recent immigrants, for whom the poverty problem is most acute, but the same trend is evident for those who have been here longer.
For those with six to 10 years in Canada, the low-income rate climbed to 28.3 per cent in 2000 from 18.7 per cent in 1980. Among those in Canada for 11 to 15 years, the rate increased to 22.7 per cent from 14.4 per cent, for those who arrived 16 to 20 years earlier, it climbed to 19.1 per cent from 14.7 per cent.
Only two groups went in the other direction. The rate for non-immigrants — those born here — fell to 14.3 per cent in 2000 from 15.1 per cent in 1990 and 17.2 per cent in 1980.
Immigrants with more than 20 years under their belts in Canada fared better. Their low-income rate was only 13.3 per cent in 2000, up from 12.6 per cent in 1990, but down from 16.7 per cent in 1980.
The shifts weren’t quite as smooth as these figures suggest. Poverty rates increased in the first half of both the 1980s and 1990s — periods of recession and slow recovery — and fell in the second half of each decade — periods of strong growth.
But in 1980, 1990 and 2000, the economy was at the top of the business cycle. So it’s obvious that the trend toward greater poverty among recent and not-so-recent immigrants was firmly entrenched and not just a reflection of economic conditions in those years. The fact that poverty rates fell for home-grown Canadians reinforces that point.
Sorting out the reasons for rising poverty among new arrivals is a challenge, because by one key measure — education — Canada’s new immigrants should have been ideally positioned to do well.
In 1980, only 19 per cent of recent immigrants between the ages of 25 and 65 had a university degree; by 2000, 42 per cent came equipped with such credentials. This age group is the core of the labour force — people of working age, many with years of experience to accompany their educational credentials.
Yet despite Canada’s rising demand for the highly educated and despite the needs of the knowledge-based economy, the Statscan researchers said, “having a degree, no matter what the discipline, did not protect these recent immigrants from a rising probability of being in low income. The gap in low-income rates between the Canadian born and recent immigrants was highest among degree holders, particularly those with engineering and applied science degrees.”
Because the analysts examined family incomes — not those of the primary wage earner — they couldn’t tell if these people were working in the fields for which they were trained or not. Neither did they have enough information to determine if outright discrimination played a role in rising poverty rates.
Immigrants may also have been affected as much as anyone else by the same broad decline in earnings that all young workers faced over the past 20 years.
Here, Mr. Picot and Mr. Hou advance one possible explanation that relies on the simplest of economic concepts — supply and demand.
Yes, “the demand for highly educated people increased rapidly in Canada” over the past two decades, but “so too did the supply” of Canadian-born workers with advanced degrees.
No matter how highly educated they were, immigrants were up against some stiff competition for jobs when they arrived. That couldn’t have helped.