09/18/2013 12:04 EDT | Updated 11/18/2013 05:12 EST

New Census Raises Poverty Debate

New poverty numbers released last week have received mixed reviews. Replacing the Census (with much protest), the National Household Survey (NHS) churned out income and shelter metrics from 2011 that were meant to highlight how the country has fared since the 2008 recession. Instead of offering concrete insight into the low-income population, the survey has left holes in understanding the full impact of the economic downturn. What it has successfully done is revisit the poverty debate.

According to the NHS, in 2011 4.8 million people were living with low income, with the majority of these individuals concentrated in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. This stat was derived from the Low Income Measure -- a pseudo poverty line that sets the bar at half the median income. The median income in 2011, as stated by the NHS, was $27,800. This would put the poverty line at approximately $14,000.

Let's put it another way. Almost 5 million people had an income of $14k or less in 2011, 13 per cent of which received income solely from government transfers. The majority of individuals in low-income are of working age (between 18 - 64), strengthening the argument for a living wage which would take into consideration actual costs of living and support from government programs. These stats also demonstrate the inadequacy of current social assistance programs seeing as a large number of people in receipt of support are living in poverty. It would be hard to expect people to succeed when they cannot afford the basics and are forced to choose between paying rent or buying food.

So how is Canada doing in regards to poverty? This is where it gets tricky. The NHS cannot be compared to the previous census information regarding poverty because it uses a completely different metric. Statistics Canada made sure this was obvious by inserting a blue box with this warning. So if a comparison is not possible, how do we know where we are at? That is the problem.

As a result of this change, the public is left with little sense of the trends in the country or how things are evolving. This is, indeed, problematic. The gathering of this type of statistical information -- at considerable cost to taxpayers, no doubt -- should at least be available as a yardstick to measure progress and as a valid and reliable tool to hold governments accountable.

Another issue is the number of respondents. Only 74 per cent of people in Canada responded to the survey, and as one article aptly noted, seeing as individuals from bottom of the income spectrum are less likely to participate the actual rate of low-income cannot be adequately measured.

However, while the National Survey may be flawed, if nothing else it provides us with one more reality check about the persistence of poverty in this country: 15 per cent of our population is poor and yet Canada is one of the richest countries in the world.

And who is suffering the most? The Survey showed that those living in the poorest neighbourhoods are disproportionately visible minorities, immigrants and single-parents and that women continue to earn less than men, even though they achieve higher levels of education.

Regardless of the debate, the survey helps to reignite the issue of how to address poverty, and potentially unbeknownst to Statistics Canada, the federal government will be indicating this week whether it is willing to finally implement a federal poverty plan almost four years after it supported a motion in the House of Commons to establish one.

On September 19th, the government will respond to recommendations made by members of the United Nations Human Rights Council as part of a review of Canada's human rights record. A national strategy to address poverty, homelessness and food insecurity are three proposed recommendations that the government will either support or reject. This isn't the first time that a poverty strategy has been put forward; the House of Commons, the Senate and various United Nations bodies have said this before in the past 10 years.

Same issue, same solution and yet no movement from the federal government.

Poverty is a huge drain on the economy, the health care system, government revenues, and lest we forget, individuals. What the numbers suggest is nothing new: Canada has a persistent poverty problem and without action this issue will continue.