Why being poor in Canada is better than being rich in France

Tamsin McMahon explains the OECD’s ‘Better Life Index’

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The global recession helped rewrite the world order, turning wealthy nations into debtors and economic powerhouses into ghettos of unemployed workers.

Just how far some countries have fallen was made painfully clear this week as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released its annual global quality of life index showing that, by some measures, even the poorest Canadians are now doing better than many of Europe’s elite.

The “Better Life Index” ranks a country’s well being on everything from income and unemployment, to how many minutes we spend doing the dishes or helping strangers. The Economist did its own analysis of the data and found that, all things considered, the bottom 10 per cent of Canadians were better off than the top ten per cent of in Portugal and on par with the wealthiest in France, Greece and Italy.

The findings have little to do with household wealth or income equality — top 20 per cent of Canadians have five times more disposable income than the bottom 20 per cent, a gap that has grown wider over the years.

But on other measures, low-income Canadians are doing comparatively well.

Canada scores among the highest in the world on international education surveys and we have one of the smallest gaps in test scores between students from the wealthiest and the poorest families.

Most of us have a college or university education, but even those who don’t are more likely to be employed than their counterparts in other countries. Our men spend 146 minutes a day doing housework, 15 minutes more than the OECD average.

Our health care system may be consuming provincial budgets, but nearly 80 per cent of the poorest Canadians considered themselves to be in good health — far higher than even the richest residents of France, Germany, Italy and Portugal.

Canada also turns out to have one of the most socially inclusive electoral systems in the OECD, though perhaps not in the way we’d like. Rich and poor vote in roughly equal numbers in Canada. Compare that to the yawing 23 percentage point gap in voter turnout between rich and poor south of the border.

But at 61 per cent in the last federal election, our voter turnout is among the lowest in the western world. It seems that when it comes to tuning out elections, we’re practically income-blind. That’s bad news for Canadian politicians, but score one for equality.

To view Canada’s rankings in the Better Life Index, click here.