When Necole Hines moved to Calgary from Toronto nine years ago, she was offered teller positions at four different banks. When she got laid off from a recent job at a stock photography company, she easily found another in sales and administration at a magazine.
Ms. Hines â€“ who spent a year in university but has no degree â€“ has always made lower-end but respectable wages, most recently around $50,000 a year.
But that salary doesnâ€™t go very far in what has become one of Canadaâ€™s most expensive cities, where an oil boom has created reams of new money and driven up the cost of everything from housing to groceries.
The signs of wealth are everywhere â€“ from the frenzy to build the new tallest skyscrapers, skyrocketing sales at the four-year-old Bentley dealership, and plans for high-end malls and neighbourhoods at every turn.
In the countryâ€™s energy capital, where business people, lawyers, engineers and geologists earn some of the highest salaries in Canada, households making less than a six-figure income â€“ who many would classify as middle class â€“ face a tough slog.
Calgary families earning up to $68,175 still qualify for a three-bedroom social housing unit, proof that even amid Calgaryâ€™s wealth, middle-class households are being increasingly squeezed. The tight labour market created by the expansion of the energy industry has not eliminated the issue of income inequality. Far from it â€“ the rise in the cost of living is adding to the pressure.
Ms. Hines will attest that if youâ€™re not working for an oil and gas company, or one of the other corporate towers that make up the landscape of the downtown, itâ€™s an expensive place to be.
â€œIf you donâ€™t get into that right industry, youâ€™re still having to pay for the same things as somebody else making that amount of money,â€ Ms. Hines said.
She found she needed a car because public transit isnâ€™t reliable, and food basics such as produce and cereal are more expensive. (The Consumer Price Index was higher in Calgary in 2012 than any other city in Canada, except for Edmonton.) In a city where home ownership is prized, the average single-family home costs more than $516,000, so the single mother of three rents the main floor of a house. Although she is the main breadwinner for her family, Ms. Hines has never felt as if sheâ€™s been able to get ahead. â€œIn this city, itâ€™s not that easy.â€
Albertaâ€™s bountiful oil and gas resources have given many people steady work, and have made others rich. Calgary is home to more than one in 10 of Canadaâ€™s wealthiest tax filers, those with an annual income of at least $201,400. Between 1989 and 2010, its share of the national total more than doubled, to 11 per cent from 5 per cent.
But the influx of money and 20,000 newcomers to the city each year â€“ whether itâ€™s for views of the Rocky Mountains or the low unemployment rate â€“ means the demand for every service, from housing to hairdressers, has gone up.
â€œItâ€™s not all sunshine and rainbows in Calgary,â€ Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said in an interview. â€œThere are a lot of people who are vulnerable. There are a lot of people who are living on the margins.â€
While Calgary has become home to one of the countryâ€™s highest family median annual incomes â€“ now at $93,410 â€“ increasing wealth has not affected everyone equally. In an analysis of Statistics Canada income-tax data, the University of Albertaâ€™s Parkland Institute says Calgary is Canadaâ€™s most unequal city, as the bottom 90 per cent of income earners saw an average increase in pay (adjusted for inflation) of only $2,000 between 1982 and 2010.
Alberta has the highest average hourly wages in the country, but certain sectors routinely benefit more than others. For instance, while people in business, finance or sales saw large average increases in hourly rates over the past 12 months, wages in art, culture and recreation occupations dropped.