Nfld. & Labrador

Believe it or not, people in N.L. are in better economic shape than you might think

New statistics in the 2019 Vital Signs report offer some data that counters the accepted doom and gloom in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Annual report from MUN's Harris Centre released Wednesday

Rob Greenwood of the Harris Centre helped launch the 2019 report on Wednesday in St. John's. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

It's the dominant economic narrative in Newfoundland and Labrador — the doom and gloom of the province's finances, and the hardships faced by residents.

And while there are certainly lots of statistics in the provincial Vital Signs Report 2019 that reinforce those sentiments, the report, released Wednesday, also offers glimmers of hope.

The average family income in 2017 was $81,000, says the report — an 18 per cent jump in the past 10 years, and the largest increase among all Canadian provinces in that time frame.

Additionally, the average number of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians on income support has decreased eight per cent in the last eight years, with 32,811 people receiving such assistance in 2018.

"Some of the stats are actually showing we're better off than some of the public sentiment you hear," said Rob Greenwood, director of Memorial University's Harris Centre.

Vital Signs doesn't pretend to have all the answers, but it's forcing us to think about these issues.- Rob Greenwood

The Harris Centre produces the annual report along with the Community Foundation of NL, conglomerating statistics and facts from a swath of sectors into a document delivered to homes and organizations across the province.

The report also highlights housing affordability, with the average price in N.L. half that of the Canadian average. There's also a decent showing when it comes to household debt to disposable income ratio — a mouthful of a phrase that compares how much a household owes when everything from mortgages to credit cards is tallied up, versus what that same household brings in, after income tax.

"Ours has actually dropped. We're much better off than the Canadian average," said Greenwood.

The Canadian ratio is $1.83 of debt for every $1 of such income, while N.L.'s sits at $1.44, firmly in the middle of the provinces, starkly lower than Alberta (which carries $2.15 of debt for every $1 coming in).

Plus, that ratio is shrinking in N.L., while it's growing nationally.

The bad news

While this isn't to say Vital Signs doesn't contain grim numbers about the economy, Greenwood said compiling such data into one spot serves as a conversation starter.

"It does provide insight. There's good and bad in all these angles," he said, pointing to the report's tallying of the number of residents who live in poverty, which sits at 13 per cent of the population.

The report was launched at Memorial University's Battery campus. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

And looking at the snapshot of provincial government finances doesn't give much to cheer about, as the report notes public sector debt has ballooned in the last five years, from $12 billion in 2015 to $23 billion in 2019.

That debt comes from a number of sources within the government, including its Crown corporations and agencies — like Nalcor, which is in charge of the overbudget beast of a hydroelectric project that is Muskrat Falls.

Another dubious point of distinction is the net provincial debt, projected to come in for the 2019/20 year at $15.4 billion, well above the $10.3-billion net debt in 2014/15.

While those numbers are as enormous as they are alarming, Greenwood said assembling the statistics can help propel change.

"As they say, what's measured is managed," he said.

"Vital Signs doesn't pretend to have all the answers, but it's forcing us to think about these issues in more detail."

2019 is the sixth year for the report, which can be accessed online.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show and Zach Goudie

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