How to Measure and Monitor Poverty? LIM vs LICO vs MBM.
The federal government has promised to launch a Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy in the coming weeks or months on the basis of now completed consultations with Canadians and the still ongoing deliberations of an advisory committee. As part of this process, there has been discussion about which poverty or low income measure or measures should be used for the purpose of monitoring levels and trends in the incidence of poverty and gauging the impact of poverty reduction policies. At various times, there have been calls for an official Canadian poverty line, as exists in the United States and some other countries, and some have called for poverty reduction targets which would require the specification of a poverty line or lines. (See https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/programs/poverty-reduction/reports/proverty-reduction-strategy-what-we-heard.html#section9 )
It should first be noted that any poverty line dividing the poor from the non poor at a given level of income and for a given household size is arbitrary and value-based. It explicitly or implicitly involves a judgement as how far below the mainstream people should fall before they are considered to be poor in terms of either their income or their ability to obtain the essentials of life. And any line must be used to tell us not just how many persons are poor at any point in time, but how far the poor fall below the poverty line. (For example, most social assistance recipients live in deep poverty, while most seniors in poverty are clustered just below the poverty line due to receipt of the Guaranteed Income Supplement to Old Age Security.)
The line should also be used to inform us how long the poor remain poor. (For example, social assistance recipients with disabilities tend to remain in low income much longer than the working poor who cycle in and out of poverty.) Finally, a useful poverty line should inform us of the incidence of poverty by age, gender, racial status and aboriginal status, disability status, economic family type, and so on, as well as by province and region.
A single poverty line as called for by some has the merit of being relatively simple and potentially easy to communicate. As well, a clear indicator showing the impact on the incidence and depth of low income of policies such as increased child and senior benefits could help build public support for a poverty reduction strategy.
However, choosing a single measure risks glossing over different concepts of poverty and overly minimizing the complexity of the issue.
Currently, Statscan provides annual data based on three different measures of low income – the LICO AT, the LIM AT and the MBM. (See CANSIM Table 206-0041 for detailed data on poverty using these measures.) LICO estimates are also presented on a pre tax basis but these are seldom used. While the three measures in use today are not described as poverty lines, they are generally used as such, and they all allow for assessment of levels and trends in a disaggregated fashion.
The LICO AT (after tax) tells us that a person or family is spending a much higher than average percentage of its income on the essentials of food, shelter and clothing (based on family size and with account taken of the size of the community in which the household resides.) The LICO line is based on 1992 living costs, so trends tell us how much progress has been made over time in terms of the ability of Canadians to purchase a basic basket of goods at 1992 spending weights..
The poverty rate in 2015 based on this measure was 9.2%, down from a high of 14.0% in 1983, but it can be questioned if poverty has really fallen so significantly. The LICO has fallen into disfavour because it does not tell us how many persons are unable to achieve a basic standard of living in terms of what Canadians are consuming today, as opposed to twenty-five years ago. For example, the LICO basket does not include the cost of internet access. The LICO does, however, give us some sense of the very long-term trend in the living standards of the poor, and tells us that there has been some absolute income growth over time among the poor.
The Market Basket Measure tells us that a household – in after tax terms, adjusted for family size – has insufficient income to purchase a modest basket of goods and services. The MBM was called for by federal and provincial ministers, and the composition of the basket was determined by government officials rather than by Statistics Canada. It has been calculated since 2002 for a reference family in a large number of communities, so it varies with the local price of housing and food. It is more than an extreme bare bones, basic needs budget insofar as it includes child care costs and the cost of a modest vehicle where transit is unavailable.
That said, there has been a lot of disagreement about the contents of the MBM basket, and many argue that it is a poor measure of the consumption gap between low income Canadians and the mainstream. MBM does not centrally view poverty as being about distance from the mainstream, bur rather as having an income which is insufficient to meet the basic needs of a low income family.
In 2015 the MBM rate at a national level was 12.1%.
The LIM measure (Low Income Measure After Tax) draws a low income line based on 50% of the income of a median household of the same number of persons. It is a purely relative measure with poverty being seen as having an income well below the norm defined as the income of a mid point Canadian family.
In 2015, the national LIM rate was 14.2%. This measure is based only on income relative to the national median income, and is not a measure of basic needs based on consumption.
LIM is very useful in terms of telling us how the bottom of the income distribution is doing compared to the broad middle-class, and how that is changing over time. It is also very useful in terms of international comparisons, telling us that the gap between the bottom and the middle is much wider today in Canada than many European countries, but that low income is much less prevalent in Canada than the United States.
The big problem with the LIM is that it does not take account of large differences in living costs between cities and regions. For example, no account is taken of very large differences in rents between big cities, or the high cost of food in many remote and rural communities.
There is not a great difference between the LIM and MBM measures when it comes to calculating the overall incidence of low income. Over the past five years, the LIM rate has averaged 13.5% compared to 14.2% for the MBM rate. Both rates have remained fairly constant since 2002. (The gap in 2015 – a 14.2% LIM rate compared to a 12.1% MBM rate – was unusually large.)
However, there have been some important differences over time and for some sub populations.
There is a huge difference between the LIM and MBM poverty rates for seniors (14.3% vs 5.1% in 2015.) Also, there have been big changes over time in the LIM based poverty rate for seniors. This fell from 33.1% in 1977 to a low of 3.9% in 1995, before increasing to 14.3% in 2015. The income gap between seniors and other families narrowed initially due mainly to improvements in public and private pensions, but in recent years the incomes of many seniors have been falling behind those of working age families in relative terms. This is not captured in the MBM measure. (As an aside, the LIM poverty rate for seniors would likely not rise if Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement were to be indexed to wage growth and not just inflation.)
The apparent stability of the LIM rate over time also hides a long-term increase in the low income rate for the working age population, especially single persons, and, importantly, a major decline in the low income rate for single parent families headed by women reflecting a significant rise in participation in the labour market.
There is also a big difference between LIM and the MBM when it comes to calculating the incidence of low income in Quebec. The Quebec LIM rate is 16.2% compared to a 10.9% MBM rate. The LIM rate in Quebec is 2.0 percentage points above the national LIM rate, but the Quebec MBM rate is 1.2 percentage points below the national MBM rate. This difference is likely due to low housing costs in Quebec compared to other provinces.
The key point is that the conceptual and measurement differences between LIM and the MBM result in significant differences in rates of low income for important sub populations. It is important to have both measures to account for this complexity.
It is also important to appreciate that the drivers of the LIM rate and the MBM rate are different. The LIM rate reflects changes, not just in the incomes of low income families, but also in median incomes. The LIM rate could rise if median wages began to grow after years of stagnation, and if bottom incomes did not follow suit. By contrast, the MBM rate could fall due to increased income supports which lowered the real cost of living of the poor, even if the gap between the middle and the bottom were to grow. Both measures should register major changes in the labour market and in income transfer programs.
By way of conclusion, the LIM and the MBM are conceptually different measures, both of which provide useful and important information for analysts and policy makers. We need both to get a handle on overall low incomes and trends in different populations.