Canada's harsh climate and low population density leads to high fuel consumption for transportation and heating. Historically, Canadians were worried because much of the country lacks natural river systems that could be easily used for transportation, but this fear has largely abated. Canada's terrain is also somewhat more rugged than the United States. The Rocky Mountains are more of an obstacle, and the mass of the Canadian Shield provides a formidable barrier to any links between Ontario and Manitoba.
Canada does have some distinct geographic advantages. The large river systems in the north are sources of cheap hydro-electric power. The main advantage is Canada's vast supplies of natural resources and fossil fuels. While the United States has large supplies of resources and fossil fuels, these are not enough to meet domestic demands and the country is forced to import many raw materials and fossil fuels, a great deal of which come from Canada. By contrast Canada is a net exporter of resources. This leads to an important difference as increases in the price of resources boost the Canadian economy while hurting the American. For example a rise in oil prices generally causes a fall in the Dow Jones and NASDAQ but an increase in the TSX.
The average tax rate in Canada is higher than in the United States. In Canada total tax and non-tax revenue for every level of government equals about 37% of GDP, compared to the U.S. rate of 27%. While this tax differential has fallen, this coupled with better opportunities in the US is still a leading cause of brain drain to the USA.
A significant portion of this tax differential is due to spending differences between the two countries. While the US is running deficits of about 4% of GDP, Canada has consistently posted a budget surplus of around 1% of GDP. Considered in a revenue-neutral context, the differential is much smaller - Canada's total governmental spending was about 36% of GDP vs. 31% in the US. In addition, caution must be used when comparing taxes across countries, due to the different services each offers. Whereas the Canadian healthcare system is 70% government-funded, the US system is just under 50% government-funded (mostly via Medicare and Medicaid); adding the additional healthcare-spending burden to the above figures to obtain comparable numbers (+3% for Canada, +7% for the US) gives adjusted expenditures of 38–39% of GDP for each of the two nations.
The taxes are applied differently as well. Canada's income tax system is more heavily biased against the highest income earners, thus while Canada's income tax rate is higher on average, the bottom fifty percent of the population is roughly taxed the same on income as in the United States. However, Canada has a national goods and services tax of 5% on all purchases, while the U.S. federal government does not, increasing the tax burden on Canadian low-income earners due to the regressive nature of a sales tax. However, Canadian GST does not tax food and other essentials and a GST rebate for low-income earners mitigates regressiveness.
In addition to the 5% GST levied on most purchases, some Canadians also pay a provincial sales tax at a rate that varies by province and can be as high as 10%. In Ontario, for example, where the provincial sales tax (PST) is 8%, consumers must pay a total of 13% sales tax on top of the purchase price. There are some purchases which are PST exempt, such as children's clothing. In the U.S., most states impose a sales tax, and cities and counties are often permitted to levy taxes as well, which can exceed 10% on purchases.
Canada has no inheritance tax while the United States still does, although many conservatives and economic liberals are pushing to have it abolished.
The greatest difference in social programs is in health care. Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. Government spends as much on health care, 7% of GDP, as the Canadian government does, and total healthcare spending is much higher - 14.6% of GDP in the US vs. 10% in Canada. Canadians, however, receive comparable care and some figures such as life expectancy and infant mortality are better in Canada. Another advantage is that the Canadian health care system is said by some to be attractive to employers, as in Canada health care is mostly paid through employee income taxes, while in the United States most companies have to extend health benefits to full-time employees, something they do not have to do in Canada. Many employers, however, still offer employees additional medical coverage plans because some medical services may not be fully covered by the government-run health insurance system. The main disadvantage of the Canadian system are the long lines and waiting periods that have appeared over the last 15 years for some services, especially for minor and non-life threatening procedures. For this reason, some relatively wealthy Canadians go to the United States, India, or other nations to avoid waiting for medical treatment, joining " medical tourists" from many nations, including the US. Some Canadians who can afford it, undergo operations at private healthcare facilities at their own expense; some Canadians, unfortunately, are occasionally required to endure delays in both screenings (such as MRI scans) and in non-emergency operations for which a delay can be life-threatening. Additionally, a number of medical tests and screenings are not covered (or due to increasing costs, are no longer covered) by the Canadian health system, forcing patients to pay for these services out of their own pockets. Despite these sporadic problems, some people hold that Canada's healthcare performance is generally on par with, or better than, the US, in that healthcare coverage is universal for Canadians.
A good example of this is the automobile industry, which can be clearly demarcated into two periods: before and after the free trade creating Auto Pact of 1969. Before Canada had its own production lines creating each of the models that would be sold in Canada. These branch plant factories would only make small production runs of each vehicle, requiring frequent, and expensive retoolings. The factories would also generally be smaller. Fewer varieties were available to Canadian consumers and prices were generally higher. However, these cars were almost all still made by American companies. After the Auto Pact, the industry was transformed as a unified North American market was created. The Canadian factories were rebuilt to be much larger, but to make only one model that would be sold in both countries creating large economies of scale. The prices of cars fell in Canada as wages and total employment in the automobile sector increased.
After the Second World War tariffs between the two countries gradually fell, with full free trade being established by the 1988 Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement. Some industries are still protected, however. These are mostly perceived as sensitive areas such as cultural industries including publishing, television, and newspapers, which all of have stringent foreign ownership rules. Other areas such as the transport industry are also protected with Canadian control of the airlines and trains being viewed as in the national interest.
This tends to create far more monopolies in Canada. For instance the air travel industry in Canada until recently was dominated by a single airline, Air Canada. Canada has long had to make a trade-off between monopolization and efficiency which the United States has not. The United States can support a number of airlines that are big enough to operate efficiently, and still have a competitive market. Canadians are forced to choose between small inefficient airlines that would be competitive, or monopolistic airlines that will generate its own inefficiency.
There are several subsidies in the U.S. system that do not exist in Canada. In terms of direct impact to consumers, mortgage interest is tax deductible in the U.S. (a market distortion designed to encourage home ownership), but is not in Canada. The U.S. also indirectly subsidizes mortgages through a plethora of government sponsored enterprises. The U.S. entities do much more than provide mortgage insurance, and use their own huge balance sheets to purchase mortgages. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation historically was mainly limited to providing mortgage insurance, although now facilitates funding of mortgages also through the Canada Mortgage Bond program, which has also grown to be quite large.
In real terms Canadian banks are much smaller. In 2003 the three largest banks in America had assets equal to the entire 67 banks (only 14 domestic) operating in Canada. The largest Canadian bank has 1300 branches while in the U.S. the four largest banks have over 2000 branches each.
Canada's banks have traditionally been fierce competitors internationally, though today America's largest banks have a more significant presence overseas. In part the history of this situation is rooted in Canada's smaller market. For Canadian banks international exchange was always a central concern. For American banks domestic banking was paramount. In the 1920s in the American economic centre of New York Canadian banks dominated the international banking sector due to greater expertise and focus. Thus Canadian banks came to have far wider spread networks. Much of the banking system in the West Indies is controlled by the Canadian banks. Canadian banks also have far more of a presence in the United States than American firms do in Canada. In part this is because American firms cannot buy Canadian banks, but Canadian banks have, at times, been able to buy American ones. Since the large Canadian banks already operated nationwide chains of a thousand or more branches, they find it relatively easy to integrate smaller chains of American banks into their systems.
In recent years this advantage has disappeared as American banks have also grown substantially in size and today have many branches, and the large American banks are now operating over 2000 branches each. In fact, the ten largest banks in North America today are all U.S.-based. Overseas, American banks have a larger presence than Canadian banks. Only Royal Bank of Canada's RBC Capital Markets division has a global scale that even approaches that of the U.S. investment banks.
Until recently, Canadian banks had historically been far less strictly regulated than their American counterparts. Canadian banks had, until the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in 1999, been freer to participate in the financial planning and insurance industries than their American counterparts. In the 1980s and 1990's, the large Canadian banks acquired almost all significant trust and brokerage companies in Canada. They also started their own mutual fund and insurance businesses. As a result, Canadian banks broadened out to become supermarkets of financial services, a trend that has started later in the U.S. market. The average U.S. bank is a domestic banking operation. The large Canadian banks are financial conglomerates, with large domestic Canadian banking operations.
Bank regulation in the United States is highly fragmented compared to Canada which has only OSFI as the bank regulator (although credit unions are provincially regulated). In the U.S., a bank's primary regulator could be the Federal Reserve Board, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Office of Thrift Supervision, or any one of 50 state regulatory bodies, depending on the charter of the bank. And within the Federal Reserve Board, there are 12 districts with 12 different regulatory staffing groups. The U.S. is also one of the most highly regulated banking environments in the world; however, many of the regulations are not safety and soundness related, but are instead focused on privacy, disclosure, fraud prevention, anti-money laundering, anti-terrorism, anti-usury lending, and promoting lending to lower-income segments. Even individual cities enact their own financial regulation laws (for example, for usury lending). Canadian banks had not faced laws against usury, or interest guarantees on deposits. Return on equity for Canadian banks were generally comparable to U.S. banks (with return on assets lower, but with Canadian banks using more leverage to compensate).
Credit unions in Canada are tax-paying entities, while they have been tax-exempt in the U.S. However, as restrictions on the size of credit unions in the U.S. have eased, the American Bankers Association has been lobbying to have credit unions taxed to level the playing field.
In Canada prices have long tended to be higher. This is partly because of structural issues in Canada such as low population density and harsher weather, and partly due to Canada's tax system, which depends more heavily on sales taxes relative to income taxes than the US. This has contributed to phenomena such as cross-border shopping. Since the early 1990s this has not been the case, as the Canadian dollar had fallen low enough that it more than made up for price differences. Today prices are somewhat lower in Canada for at least one item: the Big Mac Index shows that in January 2006 a Big Mac cost $3.15 in the States and only $3.01 in Canada (both figures in USD). As of October, 2007 the Canadian dollar has risen to parity and this has benefited Canadian travellers and consumers. However, this is not favourable to Canadian manufacturers and exporters who do most of their business south of the border.
Fuel prices have always been higher in Canada, even though Canada is a net exporter of energy. This is partly for the same reasons as above and partly because of taxes levied specifically on fuel. Unlike many oil producers, particularly those in the developing world, Canada does not heavily subsidize fuel, so prices are based on the world market price.
The productivity gap had been even larger in the 1950s but the difference has been narrowing, aided by the elimination of the smaller market problem through free trade. The gap was still closing somewhat in the 1980s but at a much slower pace than in the 1960s. From 1961 to 1973 labour productivity rose annually by 3.3 percent in Canada and 1.7 percent in the United States. From 1973 to 1995 productivity growth was 1.1% in Canada and 0.8% in the United States.
The productivity gap began to widen again in the 1990s, particularly in the manufacturing sector. By 2000, this was called Canada's "Excellence Gap" by the Chief Economist of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters. The United States has the second-highest productivity of the G8 countries, while Canada's is 5th based on the 1997 estimate.
Over several decades Canada typically had a reported unemployment rate about 2% higher than the US rate. As of June 2008 the reported unemployment in the US is at 5.5 percent and at 6.1% in Canada, a 32-year low. About half of the difference is caused by the two countries measuring the unemployment rate differently. Craig Riddell, a University of British Columbia economist, found that the unemployment gap had averaged about 2% over the last several years. Riddell argues that 0.9% of the difference was caused by differing measurement systems. Statistics Canada has also acknowledges this, and publishes a second unemployment rate using the same methodology as the Americans. In June 2008 this lowered the Canadian unemployment rate by 0.8% to 5.3%. June 2008 was the first time in 21 years where the reported unemployment rate has been lower than the American one.
During the 1980s when this employment gap first emerged it was a controversial issue. Canada's higher income taxes and stronger welfare state, were blamed. Other factors that people have claimed explain the remaining difference are the large number of seasonal workers in trades such as fishing and logging who are unemployed for a portion of the year. Canada's more restrictive labour laws, increased role of unions, universal healthcare, and greater unemployment benefits have also all been blamed for creating some of the difference. However, when unemployment insurance and welfare were sharply cut in many parts of Canada during the 1990s there was little gain relative to the Americans.
In the late 1990s, the GDP gap widened. In this period, GDP increased by 5% annually in the United States, and 2% in Canada. Earlier, it had been narrowing between 1961 and 1995. However, it was closing at a much faster rate in the 1960s than the early 1990s. From 1961 to 1973, real GDP grew at an average annual rate of 5.5% in Canada and 4.0% in the United States. From 1973 to 1995 it was 2.6% in Canada and 2.3% in the USA. Canada was not hit as hard by the economic downturn in 2001, however, so cumulative growth in real GDP has been almost exactly the same amount in each country over the last 15 years.
Canada ranks higher than the U.S. in statistics such as life expectancy (80.22 years in Canada versus 77.85 in the U.S.) and infant mortality (4.75 Canadian deaths per 1000 versus 6.50 in the States). Both countries rank highly with 97% literacy rates. The United States has more major consumer goods per capita than Canada. For instance, while Canada had only 297 computers per 1000 people in 1996, the United States had 403.
Average income is higher in the United States, though the gap is much less when measuring median income. In the United States, African-Americans and Hispanics have a lower standard of living than the rest of the population; in Canada, Aboriginal peoples and Black Canadians are disproportionately likely to live in poverty, although these disadvantaged groups represent 25% of the US population and only 6% of Canada's. In both countries, recent immigrants tend to have lower earnings than more established residents. Canada's French-Canadians also used to be a poorer group, but since the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s this has been partially remedied.
The United States measures poverty, while Canada does not have an official measure (see Poverty in Canada#Measures of poverty in Canada), although Statistics Canada measures something called the Low-Income Cutoffs, the statistical agency repeatedly states that this is not a poverty measure (it is an income dispersion measure like the Gini coefficient). In the United States the poverty line is set at triple the "minimum adequate food budget." When a common measure is used, such as that of the Luxembourg Income Study, the United States has relatively higher rates. The LIS reports that Canada has a poverty rate of 15.4% and the United States 18.7%. In both countries lower incomes are found in those most affected by poverty include single-parent families and single elderly people.
Many statistics comparing the standard of living of Canada versus that of the United States do not take into account illegal immigration in the United States. It may be said the cost of absorbing lower skilled, poorer workers in the US skews comparison studies downward for the United States (see also Economic impact of illegal immigrants in the United States). In recent years, what otherwise would have been a reduction in the low-income cutoff, was more than offset by the impact of immigration. According to a 2003 study by Statistics Canada "The rise in the low-income rates in the three major Canadian cities, and in Ontario and B.C. during the 1990s in particular, was largely concentrated among the immigrant population. Basically, low-income rates have been falling over the past two decades among the Canadian born, and rising among immigrants." A more recent January 2007 study by Statistics Canada explains that the low-income rates of new immigrants has deteriorated by yet another significant amount from 2000 to 2004 (see also Economic impact of immigration to Canada).