Census Income Update (Pt 2) A Snapshot of Median Incomes Across BC

September 29, 2017
Kristine St-Laurent

Note: This blog has been updated to include household median incomes as reported on the 2016 long-form Census. A previous version used household median incomes as reported by 2016 income tax filings.

Census data released in mid-September provide data on incomes for 2015. In Part One, we looked at median[1] household[2] incomes across the provinces and territories. In Part Two, we dig into the regional picture here in BC.

In 2015, median household income in British Columbia stood at $69,995,[3] putting BC 7th among the provinces and territories, and just below the national benchmark of $70,336. While median income has risen in BC by 12.2% since 2005, the province fell to a lower ranking than a decade earlier, mainly because some other resource-based jurisdictions made substantial income gains.

British Columbians experienced considerable economic change over the last decade, including the 2008-09 financial crisis, a commodities-led recovery and a dramatic spike in urban housing prices. While every metropolitan area in British Columbia experienced some growth in median household income over the last ten years, resource-rich communities saw bigger increases than other communities.

The BC findings broadly mirror the national income trends. Adjusted for inflation, median household income growth between 2005 and 2015 ranged from 1.4% or less in Port Alberni and Powell River to over one-fifth in Prince Rupert (+23.2%), Fort St. John (+27.5%) and Dawson Creek (+31.6%). Most of the communities with the highest median household incomes were in the resource-based economies of Fort St. John ($107,091), Squamish ($88,366), Dawson Creek ($79,211), and Prince George ($78,427). Within the Lower Mainland, households in Abbotsford-Chilliwack led the pack, with a median income of $73,598. Metro Vancouver[4] households chalked up a median of $72,662, while Victoria fell slightly behind ($70,283).

Following the 2008-09 economic downtown, the unemployment rate in BC gradually fell back to 6.2% in 2015.[5] Fewer manufacturing and agricultural jobs were more than offset by rising employment in mining, forestry, oil and gas, construction, utilities, professional services, healthcare and public administration.[6]While the job rebound after the recession is a good news story, it comes with a caveat. According to a CIBC Economics report, many of the jobs created since 2009 have been relatively poorly paid and part-time. Meanwhile, wage gains have been quite skewed, accruing disproportionately to highly skilled workers (many of whom are already in the top 10% of earners).

While wages may be higher in other areas, employment opportunities within BC are concentrated in urban regions, especially Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. Not only are median household incomes lower in these regions than elsewhere in BC (and Canada), living costs are noticeably higher – arguably, near prohibitive in some cases. Household debt levels are high in Metro Vancouver, in part because it’s by far the least affordable housing market in Canada. It’s becoming harder to rent in Metro Vancouver, too – the latest data from the CMHC suggests Metro Vancouver’s rental vacancy is a meagre 0.8%. With housing in hot demand and less-than-average median household incomes, the supply of workers in Metro Vancouver may eventually come under downward pressure if the gap between incomes and housing costs continues to increase.

The latest Census income data underscores the need to sustain and create more well-paying jobs. While BC had Canada’s fastest growing provincial economy in 2015-16, incomes remain middle-of-the-road. Attracting more head offices, investing in skills and talent development, and encouraging business investment can help to support the growth of household incomes. In addition, measures to tamp down housing demand and incentivize the construction of purpose-built rental housing would aid in attracting and retaining skilled workers in the urban regions of British Columbia.

[1] The median is the exact half-way point in the distribution and can be thought of as the "typical" household.

[2] A household, as defined by Statistics Canada, contains at least one census family, that is, a married couple with or without children, or a couple living common-law with or without children, or a lone parent living with one or more children (lone-parent family).

[4] Census Metropolitan Area. Major cities included in Metro Vancouver = Vancouver, West Vancouver, North Vancouver, Burnaby, Richmond, Surrey, Coquitlam, Maple Ridge, White Rock and Langley.

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