Newest data shows poverty on the rise in N.L., but critics say it's worse than indicated

With poverty on the rise, a forum on poverty reduction painted a grim picture of Newfoundland and Labrador on Saturday.

Poverty reduction forum looks at flaws in government data

Aislyn Gogan, a researcher with the provincial government, goes through slides on poverty measures in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

Poverty numbers are on the rise in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the full scope of the increase is not yet known.

The latest numbers available to the provincial government were used during a poverty reduction forum at St. John's City Hall on Saturday, showing slightly less than 14 per cent of the province is considered low income.

But speakers at the forum highlighted two issues with the data — the latest information is two years old and it only includes people who have filed their income tax returns.

Joanne Thompson, executive director of the Gathering Place, said flaws with provincial data leaves a whole group of people unrecognized and underserved. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

"If you're not part of CRA records, or you're not filing income tax, you're not part of that government database," said Joanne Thompson, executive director of the Gathering Place.

Thompson said the majority of the clients she sees are not filing tax returns, and therefore are not part of the provincial record.

With what she considers to be an entire demographic not counted in the data, Thompson said many of those people fall through the cracks.

Current numbers expected to be on the rise

The forum was organized by the Religious Social Action Coalition of Newfoundland and Labrador, a gathering of different religious societies in the province to push for change.

"Every [faith has] reference to caring for the widowed, the orphaned and the strangers or those in need," said George Powell, a member of the coalition. "We focus on social justice. We don't discuss religion or topics such as that."

Data was presented by Aislyn Gogan, a provincial government statistician who deals specifically with poverty reduction.

A slide shows low-income numbers in Newfoundland and Labrador between 2003 and 2015.

There have been huge changes in poverty numbers since 2003, when Newfoundland and Labrador had just below 20 per cent of its citizens living on low income.

Numbers declined drastically as the provincial economy boomed, resulting in a low of 12 per cent of the population classified as low-income from 2009 to 2012.

The first speaker of the day, Dr. Robert Sweeney, said the data is lagging behind the increase in poverty in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Sweeney, a historian, taught classes at Memorial University on the history of inequality in Canada.

In her presentation, Gogan acknowledged the lag in data is problematic. The numbers for 2017 are expected to be higher than the 2015 figures, she said, but the actual difference won't be known until closer to 2019.

Thompson says the actual number would be even higher if it included people who do not file tax returns — many of whom are suffering through mental illness and addictions.

Many clients at the Gathering Place are not counted among poverty statistics in Newfoundland and Labrador, the centre's executive director says. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

"We are allowing an invisible population to remain excluded and remain outside initiatives," she said.

"I can't speak to how much higher [the numbers] should be, but I can say the profiles we see at the Gathering Place are not aligned with the provincial data."

Thompson says the Gathering Place has helped 900 clients open files with the Department of Advanced Education, Skills and Development for government services — all in the last 10 months.

"That speaks for itself in terms of people who have been underserved," she said.