Here are five important takeaways from today’s Cabinet shuffle. As the old saying goes, 'plus ca change, plus c'est la même chose'.
1. Economic (In)action Plan
Canadians hoping the government would signal willingness to address pressing economic concerns such as growing inequality, rising youth unemployment, a manufacturing crisis, and the rise of precarious work will be disappointed.
Posted by NationBuilder Support · June 27, 2013 8:00 PM
Last September, the Broadbent Institute issued a major discussion paper, Towards a More Equal Canada, on rising economic inequality. We followed up in April with a brief to the Commons finance committee on what income tax and transfer changes could promote a fairer Canada.
Extreme economic inequality undermines democracy and the common good. Very unequal societies do much worse in terms of social and economic performance, in health and life expectancy, social mobility (equality of opportunity for children), crime levels, the quality of democracy, and levels of social trust.
While it is true that rising inequality is due in significant part to economic factors such as globalization and technological change, it is equally true that some advanced countries have remained much more equal than others. In the final analysis, the level of inequality in a nation is a matter of political choice.
Research shows Canada used to do quite well at striking a balance between a growing market economy and a fair distribution of the fruits of growth. But cuts to social programs and public services as well as changes to income support programs and personal income tax since the mid-1990s have compounded inequality.
Recent income tax changes have disproportionately favoured the rich. Providing a basic income-tested guarantee to all citizens through a fairer personal income tax system — a negative income tax — would be a powerful force for greater equality.
Our brief to the finance committee argued we should start by significantly increasing the federal Working Income Tax Benefit, which provides a very modest tax credit to Canadians who work but still have very low incomes.
The greatest gap in Canadian income support programs is for workers and families who do not qualify for welfare but remain in poverty since they are employed in precarious and low-paid jobs.
More than one-third of working Canadians do not have permanent, full-time paid jobs. Many fall below the poverty line due to low hourly wages and/or not enough weeks of work in a year.
The working poor and near poor — who move in and out of low-paid jobs but often fail to attain a decent standard of living — is disproportionately made up of recent immigrants, especially those belonging to racial minorities, persons with disabilities, female single parents, the single near-elderly, aboriginal Canadians, and young people trying to get into secure employment.
Credit should be given to the present federal government for creating the Working Income Tax Benefit, a new form of benefit which in the U.S. and elsewhere has reduced poverty while promoting employment.
But the benefit is modest (less than $1,000 for a single person and less than $1,800 for a family) and is lost completely at low levels of employment income ($18,000 for a single person, $27,000 for a family).
The maximum benefit should be increased significantly and phased out more slowly as income rises so recipients are always better off if they find more work or better-paying jobs.
Increases to the Working Income Tax Benefit should be matched by incremental increases in minimum wages to ensure supplements for the working poor do not become subsidies to low-wage employers. Minimum wage levels should ensure a single person working full-time for a full year does not live in poverty.
Improving conditions for low-wage workers will also involve raising minimum employment standards for hours of work, rights of part-time workers, pay and employment equity, enforcing such standards, facilitating access to unionization, and greatly expanding training for unemployed and under-employed workers.
Hopefully, the Commons finance committee will be able to achieve all-party agreement to assist the working poor by expanding the Working Income Tax Benefit. This would be an incremental but real step towards a more comprehensive negative income tax system.
Harvard University economist Gregory Mankiw, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under United States President George W. Bush and, more recently, a key economic adviser to Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, mounts a spirited defence of the very rich in an article to be published in the next issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives.
Mankiw’s central argument, recently highlighted by Chrystia Freeland, is that very high incomes reflect exceptional productive contributions by highly talented individuals which benefit the rest of society.
President Obama went to Austin, Texas, last week in pursuit of an industrial and employment revival. He wants to launch manufacturing institutes to foster American innovation and job creation.
Republicans responded by ridiculing the president, in the same arrogant way that the blooded aristocrats on the British television series Downton Abbey scorned a chauffeur who sought to marry into the patrician Crawley family. "No opportunity for the downtrodden!" the GOP and wealthy vow.
Brian Lee Crowley’s recent column in the Globe and Mail shows that he's a glass-half-full kinda guy. He says we shouldn't be worried about unemployment because a) it's old-fashioned, b) Boomers had it worse (and now they're getting old) c) we're doing better than the U.S., and d) it's really only young people and immigrants that are unemployed.
This is a relief.
So I shouldn't worry that the Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey indicates that real average hourly wages have risen by only twenty cents between 2009 and 2012 (an annualized growth rate of 0.3%). Or, that at the same time, real median hourly wages have actually fallen, indicating that any wage growth has been limited to a few at the top end.
Hidden deep in the bowels of the Fraser Institute in Vancouver, there is an elaborate contraption known as “the Canadian Tax Simulator.” It generates the data for “the Canadian Consumer Tax Index,” an annual report that supposedly tells us how much tax is paid by the average Canadian family.
The latest report was released just before the income tax filing deadline of April 30. Taxes, we were told, are shockingly high as a proportion of family income, and now loom larger than spending on the necessities of life.
Posted by NationBuilder Support · April 30, 2013 10:03 AM
Canada has an inequality problem. Middle-class incomes have stagnated and poverty has risen as the income share of the top 1% has risen dramatically.
How much inequality we are prepared to tolerate is a matter of political choice. Some countries have done better than others, and Canada has not performed well.
Tuesday is the deadline for filing our personal income tax returns. As millions of Canadians sit at their computers and at their kitchen tables working to remit their paperwork, it’s an appropriate moment to consider how changes to our tax and income transfer system could move us to a more equal Canada.
The Broadbent Institute is presenting proposals Tuesday to the Finance Committee of the House of Commons. Our primary recommendation is that Canada establish as a goal the provision of a basic income-tested guarantee to all citizens through a fairer personal income tax system.
The tax/transfer system equalizes income in two important ways. First, progressive income taxes mean that the affluent pay a higher percentage of income than middle and low income earners. Second, these taxes help finance social programs that benefit those who have middle and low incomes more than the affluent.
Our tax/transfer system is modestly re-distributive, but we still have a very unequal distribution of income after the impact of taxes and transfers has been taken into account. And the re-distributive impact of has been declining since the mid-1990s. It’s now 20% below the advanced industrial country average.
Canada must promote greater tax fairness. First, we should act on the long-standing position of anti-child poverty groups that the maximum level of income-tested child benefits should be raised to cover the full cost of raising children. It is deplorable that one in seven Canadian children live in poverty.
Second, Canada should significantly increase the federal Working Income Tax Benefit (WITB) to deal with the growing reality of low pay and precarious work. Increases to the WITB should be matched by incremental increases in minimum wages to raise incomes and also to ensure that income supplements for the working-poor do not become subsidies to low wage employers.
The biggest gap in Canadian income support programs is for the working poor and near poor. Many Canadians move in and out of low paid jobs but fail to obtain a decent standard of living for very long because they cannot find steady work at decent wages. Contributing to the problem is the rise of temporary and part-time jobs, the decline in union representation and major gaps in our Employment Insurance program. These issues must also be addressed.
Credit should be given to the present federal government for creating the WITB, a new form of benefit that has been shown in the U.S. and elsewhere to reduce poverty while promoting employment. However, the current benefit is extremely modest (less than $1,000 for a single person) and is lost completely at low levels of earnings ($18,000 for a single person). The maximum benefit should be increased significantly and phased out slowly as income rises, so that recipients are always better-off if they find more hours of work.
Third, as a long-term goal, we should abolish welfare as it currently exists. Our current system, paid for by the provinces, provides meagre and stigmatizing benefits that leave recipients well below the poverty line. It also creates a “welfare wall” since recipients lose their benefits almost entirely if they take a low paid and insecure job. A negative income tax has been broadly championed across the political spectrum, including by Senator Hugh Segal and the late Tom Kent, the prime architect of Canada’s social reforms of the 1960s. It should be given serious consideration.
Fourth, improvements to income support programs should be financed by making our income tax system fairer. Even as the income share of the top 1% has risen, their effective income tax rate has fallen, from 39.4% to 33.3% since 2000. We should consider changes to address this, scale back special tax breaks that deliver huge benefits primarily to the very well off, e.g. on capital gains, and crack down on tax cheaters. Corporations should be required to pay to clean up their own pollution. Making these changes would help stabilize government finances and restore public trust in the fairness of the tax system.
These concrete steps should be taken now to make our tax and income transfer system a much more effective vehicle for promoting greater equality.
Posted by NationBuilder Support · April 30, 2013 10:03 AM
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Last September, the Broadbent Institute issued a major discussion paper Towards a More Equal Canada, which addressed the issue of rising economic inequality. For every $1 increase in national earnings over the past twenty years, more than 30 cents have gone to the top 1% of earners, while 70 cents have had to be shared among the bottom 99%. Middle class incomes have now been stagnant for thirty years.
Income inequality is threatening Canada’s economic growth and is dragging the country’s standard of living down with it, says former NDP leader Ed Broadbent.
Appearing before the Commons finance committee Tuesday, eight experts — including some of the country’s top economists and policy specialists — took turns outlining why income disparity can no longer be ignored.
“There isn’t a sane adult in Canada who is against equal opportunity,” Broadbent told the committee.
“Income inequality is a subject of great concern for Canada, one that threatens to undermine democracy and the common good.”
The solution, he said, is greater tax fairness — higher income taxes and fewer tax exemptions for the country’s top earners, a policy pitch put forth in a 2012 report by The Broadbent Institute, a left-leaning think tank founded by Broadbent.
“Tax cuts have gone to upper income Canadians. We need to increase taxes on the top one per cent,” he told the committee, adding the government should consider restoring past tax levels.
When asked, Broadbent said he did not believe such tax increases would scare the wealthiest into leaving Canada.
“I don’t think they’re going anywhere. They’re not going to pack up and move,” he said.
But professor Stephen Richardson, an executive fellow at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, argues the numbers tell a different story, one that suggests the idea of a growing income gap in Canada is a myth.
“If the rich are getting richer, which may be the case, something else must be at play because the numbers aren’t changing,” he told the committee.
There are two ways of measuring income discrepancy in Canada: through the Gini coefficient and by comparing the wealth of various income groups. The Gini method calculates inequality on a scale from one (total inequality) to zero (exact equality).
In both cases, the gap between Canada’s rich and poor appears to be stagnant. Since 1998, Canada’s Gini coefficient has remained unchanged at 0.43, Richardson said.
Income inequality in Canada, he told the committee, is “a relative concept” and entirely dependent on public perception.
“Canada could have a high level of income inequality and appear more well-off than a country that has lower inequality rates,” Richardson said.
While the numbers may not show direct income inequality, several committee members voiced concerns about unequal access to education, training and employment.
It’s this discrepancy that MPs say could be behind the decline in standards of living — particularly among aboriginal and young people — Canadians say is being felt across the country.
The challenge, said Conservative MP Mark Adler, is that most of the areas in question are provincial responsibilities. While they’re partly funded by transfer payments, he said, the federal government has no way of ensuring the money is spent properly.
Still, said Conservative MP Shelly Glover, the government is working toward improved access to these areas by creating programs like the Canada Jobs Grant, a proposed federal-provincial-industry partnership that would train Canadians in skills in short supply in today’s job market.
When questioned on this initiative, Broadbent admitted that he wasn’t familiar with the proposal but cautioned job training must also be supported by the creation of more unionized jobs.
There’s no doubt that low-income people, especially children and their parents, are better off because of social unionism’s strong tradition in Canada. At all levels,unions take the lead in pressing for public policies such as decent minimum wages, fair labour practices and progressive public services that support families when they are in the labour force and when they are not.