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Bankruptcy study points to worsening income inequality in Ontario

Ontario’s consumer insolvency rate per capita is approaching a 15-year low, but the demographics of residents filing for bankruptcy highlights structural income inequalities that may get worse, says the co-author of a biennial study of the province’s endangered debtors.


Ontario's consumer insolvency rate per capita is approaching a 15-year low, but the demographics of residents filing for bankruptcy highlights structural income inequalities that may get worse, says the co-author of a biennial study of the province's endangered debtors.

Douglas Hoyes, co-owner of licensed insolvency trustees Hoyes, Michalos & Associates Inc. and co-author of the "Joe Debtor" report, says that the average demographic that files for bankruptcy or consumer proposal is shifting to seniors with fixed incomes, single parents and millennials burdened with student-loan debt. Forced to cover debt with more debt just to pay for basic expenses, low-income earners are using payday loans and filing for insolvency at historic rates.

"Debt is a symptom – it's not the problem," Mr. Hoyes said in an interview. "If anything, we have an income problem."

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The findings reveal a tale of two Ontarios – one where home ownership, stable jobs and pensions deliver residents financial security, and another filled with people whose social circumstances increasingly prevent them from sharing in that prosperity.

Read more: The wealth paradox: How income inequality hurts every Canadian's chance of building a better life

Released Monday, the report is the fifth conducted by the firm since 2008, using data from more than 6,700 personal insolvencies in 2015 and 2016. It calculated Ontario's insolvency rate for 2016 as 3.6 for every 1,000 persons, nearing 2001's rate of 3.5.

Ontario's average Joe Debtor – someone who has filed for insolvency – has a household income 41 per cent below the median in the province. The average unsecured debt of those who file is $52,634, down 7 per cent from the firm's 2015 study, leading the authors to suggest that less debt is now required for someone to be financially imperilled.

These low-income populations have "not been able to share in Ontario's economic upswing," said Mr. Hoyes, whose Kitchener, Ont., insolvency firm is one of Canada's largest.

As a result, expenses for a regular Joe Debtor leaves them an average of $302 a month to meet unsecured debt payments – to pay down an average $960 a month in interest alone.

Insolvency filing rates among millennials, seniors, and single parents have seen an "alarming" increase, the report says, as their inherent financial limitations force them to turn to debt that quickly piles up.

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Seniors over the age of 60 account for 12 per cent of insolvency filings. Debtors under 30, meanwhile, account for 14 per cent. Single parents were disproportionately represented – while they make up about a fifth of Canadian families, they account for 43 per cent of persons with dependents who file.

A quarter of insolvency filers across all demographics use payday loans that are difficult to pay off, the study found. That number rose to 38 per cent of people under 30.

"Millennials are starting off at a huge disadvantage," Mr. Hoyes said. Postsecondary education has become a minimum requirement for many jobs, but its costs have ballooned. "As a society, we're going to have to look at that – whether we want people to be starting their working lives in debt."

Mr. Hoyes said that the province as a whole should take this as a warning sign.

"Everything right now is about as good as it can be in our economy – interest rates are low, unemployment is low, the real estate market is doing great," he said. "Even where we are now, we've got a big chunk of the population who's in trouble. What happens if interest rates go up by one point? If the unemployment rate goes up? If the real estate market doesn't go up 20 per cent [year-over-year] for the rest of time?"

Precarity may not be far away for many Canadians. The household debt-to-income ratio hit a record 167.3 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2016. The rash of low-income bankruptcy filings could be a bellwether if the economy takes a turn for the worse.

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"I think we'll be having discussions in the future on basic income and guaranteed minimum incomes," Mr. Hoyes said. "Structurally, I don't know what else can be done to dissolve this."

Video: Carrick talks Money: How much attention you should pay to your credit score. (The Globe and Mail)
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About the Author

Josh O’Kane is a reporter with The Globe and Mail's Report on Business. Since joining the paper in 2011, he has told stories from New Brunswick to Nairobi. In his spare time, he writes about music and the industry around it. More


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