For Nova Scotia Liberals, the devil was definitely in the details.

With the opposition and the media having a field day on the SNC-Lavalin fiasco, the federal Liberal government countered with a good news announcement last week. The minister responsible for social development issued a statement proclaiming that the Liberal government has hit its 2020 poverty reduction targets three years early.

Based on the latest Canadian Income Survey (CIS) from Stats Canada, the glad tidings from minister Jean-Yves Duclos were spread far and wide by Liberal MPs via twitter. And why not do some self-congratulating? A couple of years ago the Liberals targeted a 20 per cent reduction in 2015 poverty levels by 2020. According to the minister’s math, the target was reached in 2017.

But there is one glaring exception – Nova Scotia. Here, the federal Liberals’ effort to highlight their poverty-reduction success backfired badly.

A rare closer look by reporters revealed that not only was Nova Scotia’s overall poverty stubbornly high, the number of children in families with low income in 2017 was up by 5,000 – a stunning 23 per cent jump from 2016. Worse, this spike in child poverty in Nova Scotia appeared even as other provinces were showing significant reductions, as the table shows.

 201520162017
Canada13.3/900,00011.0/755,0009.0/622,000
Nova Scotia15.7/25,00014.0/22,00017.1/27,000
Newfoundland14.1/13,00011.7/10,00010.6/9,000
Prince Edward I.14.6/4,00015.4/4,0009.1/3,000
New Brunswick15.1/20,00014.3/19,00013.1/17,000
Quebec11.2/170,0008.2/124,0008.4/129,000
Ontario14.4/383,00013.7/352,0009.6/258,000
Manitoba16.4/43,00011.9/32,0009.5/26,000
Saskatchewan14.7/34,00010.7/25,00010.3/25,000
Alberta10/90,0007.3/67,0005.0/46,000
British Columbia14.5/118,00012.0/99,0009.8/81,000

The startling reversal in Nova Scotia in child poverty trends will make it tough for federal Liberal candidates seeking re-election. Up to now, their short list of accomplishment for the last four years of attendance in Ottawa has often featured the Canada Child Benefit and its role in reducing rates of child poverty.

Meanwhile at Province House

The bad numbers also left the McNeil Liberals grasping for an explanation. Asked in the legislature by NDP leader Gary Burrill whether the jump in child poverty was not “a gross indictment of the Liberal record,” the Premier took a swipe at the messenger, promising to challenge Stats Canada “to demonstrate where they came up with those numbers.”

There may be some validity to the quest for more information. Because of sample size, Statistics Canada rates the provincial child poverty numbers as either “acceptable” or “use with caution,” instead of the more reliable “good” “very good” or “excellent.” The estimates for 2015 fall into the least reliable category – “use with caution,” but the 2016 and 2017 figures – the ones that skunked the Liberals’ garden party – were “acceptable.”

There’s another set of Stats Canada data due out in the summer compiled from tax return data for 2017 that will enable a comparison with last week’s report, which was based on a survey. In the meantime, while the Liberals may succeed in casting some doubt on the sudden spike in child poverty, that was not the only bad news about Nova Scotians’ incomes reported in the CIS.

Stats Canada uses a variety of metrics, but the one mentioned in the release is “Median after-tax income for families and unattached individuals,” a grouping which includes nearly everyone. Median is the level of income at which half the population had higher income and half had lower. Expressed in 2017 constant dollars, the CIS placed Nova Scotia dead last at $50,200. This was down from $50,400 (second lowest) in 2016 and a mere $100 above 2013, when Nova Scotia ranked eighth among provinces, ahead of Quebec and New Brunswick. In contrast to Nova Scotia’s $100 increase over the last four years, the national average increase in median after-tax income has been $3,400.

As is his custom, McNeil defended his government’s indefensible record on the economy by harking back to the bad old days when the NDP would “ignore every problem, write a cheque for everything they could find, and find no solutions to the things that were impacting families at home.”

OK, the NDP ran a few deficits and made a couple of regrettable investments. But at least  “families at home” could count on rising incomes during the NDP years, unlike the stagnation that’s been their lot during the years of Liberal rule. As the next table shows, between 2009 and 2013 median after tax income in Nova Scotia increased at almost twice the national average, as opposed to the dismal showing of the last four years.

 200920132017% change 2009-13% change 2013-17
Canada$55,200$56,400$59,8002.17%6.03%
Nova Scotia$48,100$50,100$50,2004.16%0.20%

Talk about a “gross indictment” – national growth since 2013 in excess of six per cent, Nova Scotia barely above zero. With numbers like those, the McNeil Liberals would be better off leaving the past behind and focussing on the future, which does look brighter. Employment was up in 2018 and after long periods of stagnation, so were wages. Next year’s edition of the Canadian Income Survey may show some income growth, a blessed relief for households after four years without a raise.

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