inequality between people

The gap between the highest earners and lowest income groups last year was at its widest since 2015 as the wealthiest households saw income grow much faster than lower-income Canadians did.

Higher interest rates are pushing middle- and lower-income households to spend more conservatively, which means consumer spending by the top earners will play a critical role in keeping the broader economy going.

As the national household net worth rebounded to 4.5% last year from a 6.5% decline in 2022, the gains were unevenly distributed across income levels, the report said.

“Higher-income households benefited relatively more due to their larger holdings of financial assets, which were the main wealth drivers last year,” said Maria Solovieva, an economist with TD Bank, in her report.

Household income in the top category averaged $197,909 in 2023 — up 6% from the previous year. Meanwhile, middle- and low-income households saw stagnated growth or decline.

The report shows low-income households saw a gain of 0.3% at $31,518 average annual income, while middle-income households saw a decline of 0.3% at $59,178 average annual income last year.

A decline in real estate assets, meanwhile, affected middle- and lower-income households as mortgage debts increased. Middle-income households became more indebted than before the pandemic years as mortgage renewals and debt-servicing fees increased amid high interest rates.

As a result, middle- and lower-income households cut back on discretionary spending — furnishings, household equipment and recreational activities. The cutbacks were significant among low-income households, the report suggests.

Inflation, meanwhile, pushed these households to tap into their savings to make ends meet — causing a direct implication on future spending as these families will have fewer resources to turn to, the report said.

Amid these growing financial pressures, middle income households will likely reduce spending, “creating a drag on growth,” the report warned.

“The importance of these families in the economy cannot be overestimated,” it said, noting that these households contributed 35.5% of consumption in 2023, up from the historical average of 33%, making them “the biggest marginal contributor to above-trend spending recently.”

As spending by middle-income households slows, “the highest income earners will become a critical swing factor in determining the degree of economic resilience,” the report said.