Canada down at 10th on poverty list
By Allan Thompson, Toronto Star, 9 September 1998
OTTAWA - Canada has once again been ranked by the United Nations as having the best overall standard of living in the world, but gets a mediocre rating for its treatment of the poor.
For a record-setting fifth year in a row Canada has topped the U.N.'s human development index, which measures life expectancy, health, education, literacy and income.
France ranked second, followed by Norway, the United States and Iceland. Sierra Leone was ranked last.
But in a finding that should give pause to Prime Minister Jean Chretien's speech writers, Canada ranks 10th in a new human poverty index for industrialized countries.
'With this (poverty) index we can see how the fruits of progress are distributed, and Canada is not doing very well.'- Hakan Bjorkman
Sweden topped the new ranking, with only 6.8 per cent of its population living in poverty. Canada ranked 10th, with 12 per cent of its population below the poverty line, and the United States fared the worst among the 17 industrialized countries ranked, with 16.5 per cent of its residents living in poverty.
"With this index we can see how the fruits of progress are distributed, and Canada is not doing very well," said Hakan Bjorkman, one of the authors of the report. "The human development index is an overall measure. On average, it doesn't show that there are big differences within the society, big disparities between groups."
The study found that the world's richest countries are home to more than 100 million people who have incomes below the poverty line.
"The numbers are shockingly high, amid the affluence," the administrator of the U.N. development program, James Gustave Speth, said in a news release.
The human poverty index for industrialized countries goes beyond measuring income by taking into account literacy, earnings, chronic unemployment and the percentage of the population with life expectancy of less than 60 years.
The report says Canada's grip on the No. 1 spot in the human development index is noteworthy because the country ranks 11th in terms of per capita gross domestic product. That means Canada has succeeded in translating income into programs and services that foster overall human development, the report states.
But Canada isn't sharing the wealth as well as some other countries do. Despite its top ranking in standard of living, Canada gives only $64 (U.S.) per capita in foreign aid, compared with $289 per capita by Norway and $213 per capita by the Netherlands.
The focus of this year's report is consumption and the widening gap between the world's rich and poor. Some 86 per cent of expenditures for personal consumption are made by just 20 per cent of the world's people - the rich.
The report predicts that global consumption of goods and services will top $24 trillion (U.S.) this year, six times the amount in 1975, as people consume more in food, energy, education, transportation, communication and entertainment than ever before.
But the report finds "gross inequalities" that have left more than 1 billion of Earth's nearly 6 billion people unable to meet even their basic needs.
Almost three-fifths of the 4.4 billion people in the developing world live in communities without basic sanitation; nearly one-third don't have safe drinking water; one-quarter lack adequate housing. And for most of the world's poorest, walking is the only mode of transportation.
Market globalization has increased demand for luxury items, even in poor countries, the report says. And it warns that social standards may be rising faster than incomes. "Household spending for conspicuous consumption can crowd out such essentials as food, education, health care," the report says.
But developing countries are nowhere near the levels of consumption in the world's richest countries.
The wealthiest one-fifth of the world's population eats 45 per cent of all the meat and fish consumed, burns up 58 per cent of total energy, has 74 per cent of the world's telephone lines and owns 87 per cent of its vehicles.
And runaway consumption creates a double jeopardy for people in the developing world: They don't get to enjoy the consumption, but they suffer the effects of environmental degradation.