The economic recession that began in 2008 affected Canada more gently than any other G7 country, and Alberta, whose economy is overwhelmingly reliant on energy sector commodities, has fared better than the other provinces. This, in theory, makes us one of the most fortunate populations in the world. But for middle and lower income Albertans, life has only become more difficult over recent decades.
John Ralston Saul, the eminent Canadian economic and political thinker, warned that “the exploitation of natural resources does not tend to produce a stable, balanced economy. To the contrary. Commodity markets were and are subject to incessant devastating swings. This sort of economy almost invariably produces an extreme social divide between a few rich and many poor.” The facts support Saul’s assertion, and this social divide is happening at an increasing pace in Alberta.
In fact, while Alberta’s Gross Domestic Product has steadily risen, our disposable income has not kept up. A report published by the Alberta College of Social Workers with the Parkland Institute states that “the middle class is at increasing risk of collapsing into low income; poverty is growing among those who work full-time, full-year, during a period when Alberta experienced greater economic growth more quickly than any other jurisdiction in Canada or the global north.” The ACSW report summarizes that “despite increased hours of work and a significant increase in the intensity of work, many in the middle-income deciles have little to show for their hard work, except fewer hours to enjoy with their families.” It continues, “Albertans have by far the lowest leisure time in the nation” citing 200 hours less per year than the average Canadian.
Of course, this would not be so worrying were it not the case that Alberta’s cost of living is increasing at a staggering rate: 134 per cent from 1985 to 2005, for example. Alberta food banks report a 75% increase in usage since the recession, with November 2011 breaking all records for Canadian food bank usage. Homelessness in Calgary increased by 458 per cent between 2006 and 2008 (the most recent figures). As well, Canadian personal debt is rising while personal savings are falling, as we borrow more to make ends meet. If unchecked, these trends will gradually squeeze more Albertans into poverty.
But if Alberta’s GDP keeps increasing, having more than tripled since 1985, where is the money going? The ratio of the Albertans with income over $100 000 to those who make less than $40 000 has nearly tripled as well, over the same period. What this indicates is that the so-called Alberta Advantage has benefited the wealthy few, while the rest of us are only working harder to get by.
– Arran Fisher
Canada’s economic resilience
GDP growth by province:
J. R. Saul, “Reflections of a Siamese Twin” Ch. 9
Alberta College of Social Workers Policy Framework 2010
Canadian Consumer Price Index, by city
Alberta food bank usage, Calgary Herald article
Canadian food bank usage
Canadian personal debt, Statistics Canada
Calgary Homelessness Statistics
Human Resources and Skill Development Canada, Satisfaction in LIfe study