Many of the growing social and economic inequalities visible in Canada today are rooted in, or enabled by, inequitable public policies. The impacts of policies on diverse groups of people are not adequately considered, and the result is often unequal access to programs and services. This inequality creates a problem of fairness (inequity). For example, in my city of Fredericton, NB, if you live in an apartment, you probably don’t have your recycling picked up. If you live in a house, your recycling is picked up every week. Your experience differs depending on whether you’re a renter or a homeowner. In our country, you may not have access to clean drinking water if you reside in a rural area where logging is a major industry. If you live in an urban area in Canada, you almost certainly have clean drinking water. You have a different experience depending on whether you have access to a good water treatment system, and whether you reside close to a natural resource extraction industry. In my city, my province, and our country, you cannot vote until you’re 18 years old. Access to an important piece of our democracy depends on your age.
While it is now only just over a year since the Occupy Wall Street movement began to draw attention to the wide and growing gulf between the 1% and the 99%, many have been quick to dismiss its staying power. After all, it was pointed out from the very beginning that the Occupy movement really did not have much to offer in terms of concrete policy proposals. Asked by the Wall Street Journal last October about his views on OWS, Martin Feldstein, the prominent Harvard economist, could only say: “I can’t figure out what that’s all about…I haven’t seen what they’re asking for.”
But the vagueness OWS projects in terms of its policy proposals is hardly a basis for dismissing its significance.
What have the unions ever done for us?
In the past few months, I have heard a number of right-wing figures publicly question the value of unions in our society, and I can’t help but think of a scene from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.
President Barack Obama had it right Monday when he told the people of Michigan that so-called right-to-work legislation is about politics, not jobs.
Such legislation, now in place in 23 U.S. states, undermines union finances by giving members the right to withhold dues, even though they continue to enjoy the rights and benefits of a union contract.
These laws are pretty effective in undermining unions. The unionization rate in right-to-work, or RTW, states averages just 7.6 per cent, compared to 18.6 per cent in the non-RTW states.
But independent research shows that jobs, even in manufacturing, do not flow to states that pass anti-union laws.
This is the final section of a three-part commentary by Sheila Block on our Equality Project report. Read part one and part two.
Governments at all levels in Canada have embarked on an austerity agenda that includes reducing public sector employment and efforts to privatize public services. This policy direction will slow economic growth, harm the quality of public services, and the loss of services will have a larger impact on low-income Canadians than higher income Canadians. Along with these other impacts, this austerity agenda will increase income inequality.
Increased inequality is a phenomenon that has affected many countries since the 1980s—industrial, emerging market and developing. At the same time, some countries have become more unequal than others. Thus, it is important to try to distinguish factors that have been at work universally from factors that have served either to retard or to exacerbate inequality at the national level. The latter category comprises, among others, income transfers, progressive income taxation and active labour market policies aimed at generating decent jobs and full employment. However, this note focuses on the former—the universal factors.
This is the second section of a three-part commentary by Sheila Block on our Equality Project report. Read part one and stay tuned over the coming weeks for part three.
The potential for labour market regulation to address income inequality does not end with the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, or the federal government.
The Canadian North, which includes the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Nunavik, Labrador, and Nunatsiavut, is a vast region rich in Indigenous cultures, pristine landscapes and waterways, natural resources, and increasingly diverse communities. It is also a region known for having the highest rates of chronic housing need in Canada. Across the North, where more than half the population is Inuit (including Inuvialuit), First Nations (including Innu), or Métis, there is chronic housing need (lack of affordability, inadequacy, unsuitability, unavailability) and lower rates of home ownership than in the southern provinces. The 2006 census found home ownership in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories to be 22.7 and 52.9 per cent, respectively, compared to 71 per cent in Ontario or 73 per cent in Alberta. In most small, northern communities in Canada, social housing is the main, if not only, option, with very few opportunities for home ownership. Limited opportunities for home ownership are compounded by the high rates of unemployment in many small, northern settlements.
I don’t know whether it’s smugness or indifference, but we Canadians can be a self-deluding lot. Growing inequality, portrayed recently in The Economist as a global scourge, when viewed from Canada, seems to be a problem only for others.
After all, it was other countries’ banks that crashed in 2008. It’s in southern Europe that tens of thousands are taking to the streets. And it was in France and the United States that recent elections were fought over the fact that those who created the mess, the top 1 per cent, are still getting big bonuses and low tax rates.
"The ideas of economists and political philosophers … are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." - John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money (1936)
In economics, hope and faith coexist with great scientific pretension and also a deep desire for respectability. - J.K.Galbraith, New York Times Magazine (June 1970)
The policy community praises the ideal of “evidence-based” policy – policy with a solid research base. In the real world, however, we all know that public policies, as implemented, are more often than not only vaguely related to research results and the best available data.