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Unemployment is low. The economy is growing. Why do Canadians feel they can’t get ahead?

Unemployment is low. The economy is growing. Why do Canadians feel they can’t get ahead?
Canada
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“Pocketbook issues” are always touted as key ballot box questions during election campaigns.

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This time around though, there appears to be a fresh urgency in the fears of many Canadians about their financial security.

At the same time, the big-picture economic data paints a rosy picture of strong job growth, near-record low unemployment and a future politicians like Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau argue will be lit by the promise of innovation and a burgeoning clean technology sector.

So why do so many still feel stuck?

“Canadians are as confused about the economy right now as they are about this election campaign,” said Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos. “Half of them think they’re doing better than they were four years ago, half of them are feeling like they’re doing worse.”

It’s one of the big questions defining this election campaign. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has bet that fears about the cost of living will be enough to thrust his party into power on Oct. 21, pointing the finger at the drag effect of “a streak of protectionism” launched by U.S. Donald Trump.

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Bricker pointed to the contrast between the way politicians and leaders tend to talk about the economy and the way people actually experience it.

“Policy analysts and economists and politicians like to talk about big numbers in the economy. They like to talk about numbers of jobs or how the stock market is performing or how interests are like or foreign trade is like or GDP to deficit ratios,” he said.

“The Canadian public’s not talking about that ⁠— what they’re talking about is, what have I got left at the end of the month?”

Overall, Canada’s unemployment rate is 5.6 per cent ⁠— a record low.

In August, the Canadian economy gained 81,100 jobs, bringing the total over the previous 12 months to 471,300 ⁠— a record annual gain not seen since 2003 .

And that monthly gain in August came on the heels of the biggest one-month employment surge since 1976 when April saw the country add 106,500 new jobs.

Inflation is at 1.9 per cent, which is just shy of the Bank of Canada’s goal of two per cent per year, and each year since at least 1997, according to data from Statistics Canada.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Take unemployment rates, for example.

Unemployment in Alberta remains stubbornly high at 7.2 per cent while in Nova Scotia that rate is 7.9 per cent, 8.6 per cent in New Brunswick, 8.9 per cent in Prince Edward Island, and 13.1 per cent in Newfoundland.

And although average hourly wages are increasing, they aren’t necessarily growing by much⁠ — there’s big variation across different sectors and households are spending roughly 15 per cent of their income on debt payments.

Add to that the fact that childcare costs have increased faster than inflation in 82 per cent of Canadian cities since 2014 ⁠— meaning those fees take a bigger hit out of people’s pay cheques⁠ — and in many cities, can cost as much as rent.

In Toronto, for example, childcare costs have risen six times faster than inflation since 2014, with a median cost of $1,212 per month compared to average rent for a two-bedroom apartment landing at $1,492, according to the City of Toronto.

In reality, that’s often closer to $2,000 for a one-bedroom, says John Pasalis, president of Realosophy Realty in Toronto.

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“Average house prices today are about eight times the average household income. You know about 10 years ago they’re just over four times household income. So it kind of tells you how fast homes have appreciated in 10 years and even rental apartments ⁠— I mean the cost of renting an apartment downtown Toronto, it’s over $2,000 for one bedroom.”

In Ottawa and Calgary, median childcare costs are roughly $1,000 per month while average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,566 and $1,512, respectively.

Tammy Schirle, a professor of economics at Wilfrid Laurier University, says part of the challenge is that the things that are rising in costs are things that most people don’t have viable options to choose not to pay.

“I think the challenge here is that the big picture, average prices are not rising faster than average incomes, but there’s these details that people will notice more,” she said, pointing to childcare as an example.

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“You can’t really find good substitutes other than taking a parent out of the labour force. So when we see things like childcare costs increasing substantially over time, that’s going to bite into the budgets of young parents who are also struggling to make ends meet on other fronts and starting out their own careers.”

Schirle, who is also a research fellow with the C.D. Howe Institute, added that the harder it is to avoid those kinds of increases, the harder they will register.

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Obviously, no one set of data fits everyone but in broad terms, Schirle and Bricker say it’s those feelings of disparity that seem to link much of the concerns being expressed by voters.

Disparity between wages and the cost of a home, between regions with low unemployment and those with high, between what people right now are achieving and what their parents were able to before them — things like buying a home, having a child, saving for retirement.

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Add to that increasingly precarious work, the lingering fear and uncertainty from the Great Recession in 2008 — and the continued hit many earners have taken from that ⁠— as well as the psychological instability of a world in flux, and you get a recipe for uncertainty that shows few signs of going away.

“I think there’s probably something to be said for perceptions,” said Schirle.

“Even if jobs are very stable people remember when they weren’t and probably hold on to that. We tend to be very cautious. And so there probably is some carryover from when they knew they had to worry.”

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