Use the tax system to fight poverty

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.

This op-ed originally appeared in the National Post.

Photo: vancouverbcfoodbank. Used under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence.

Reform the tax code to counter income inequality: Broadbent

This article originally appeared on iPolitics.

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.

Anti-Union Measures: Solution in Search of a Problem

Careful observers of Canadian politics will be forgiven a certain "déjà vu" feeling at the most recent target of Conservative i.e. trade unions.

Fresh from their bilious campaign against the charitable sector (recall the intemperate claims that environmental groups are "radicals", "terrorists" and "eco-vandals" emanating from federal Cabinet Ministers and Senators), the muzzling of federal government scientists, and sundry closings of important institutions with the continuing temerity to speak their mind, trade unions are clearly next in the Tory cross-hairs.

In Toronto, Leader of the Opposition Tim Hudak has proposed legislation to make payment of union dues voluntary -- even though non-dues paying free-riders would still receive the wages and benefits negotiated by their union, and would still have a legal right to union representation if they were fired or disciplined.

In Ottawa, Conservatives in the House of Commons have passed legislation that would require unions to publicly disclose in minute detail virtually all aspects of their spending, no matter how irrelevant. They propose no such requirements for business and professional associations that similarly represent their members.

And in Regina, the Wall government's Bill 85 interferes with the rights of employees to belong to the union of their choosing.

In every case, these anti-union measures are a solution in search of a problem. They are a transparent attempt to damage the financial viability of trade unions and they lay bare the hypocrisy of Conservative parties and governments who, while professing a commitment to streamline useless red tape for Canadian businesses, are ideologically driven to create a choking amount of red tape for trade unions.

Why should Canadians care, particularly the majority of us who don't below to trade unions? The reason is simple. As the Broadbent Institute outlines in a report released today, unions have made and continue to make Canada a much more equal and democratic society than would otherwise be the case. Because of this, the sort of radical US-style anti-union legislation being proposed by conservatives is a threat not just to unionized workers, but to all Canadians.

International human rights laws ratified by Canada and Supreme Court decisions have stressed that unions are democratic institutions that should be accountable to their members, and have a legitimate role to play in our society above and beyond workplace activities such as collective bargaining. Unions have a record to be proud of in terms of fighting for government policies that benefit all people, union members and non-members alike. Public pensions, Medicare, Unemployment Insurance, and affordable and accessible post secondary education were all promoted by the labour movement working with other movements for social reform.

To take one recent example, the labour movement has recently worked with seniors and anti-poverty organizations to greatly increase benefits provided by the Canada Pension Plan so that all workers, not just union workers, can have a decent pension in retirement.

Unions have also promoted laws and regulations that protect the rights of all workers in the workplace: health and safety laws, minimum wages and other minimum employment standards that help protect low paid workers in insecure jobs, and pay and employment equity laws that protect women and racial minorities from discrimination.

Numerous studies by experts with no ideological axe to grind show that, when unions are strong, the gains that they make for their members in terms of decent wages and benefits spill over into non-union workplaces. In the face of Canadian conservatives trying to portray unions as some kind of impediment to economic growth and productivity, actually examining this empirical evidence is instructive. 

Economists agree that the rapidly rising share of all income going to the top 1% in the US and Canada since the early 1980s is explained in significant part by declining unionization. US-style de-unionization would clearly make Canada a much more unequal society than is already the case.

And calculations by respected international organizations such as the OECD and the World Bank also show that countries with strong labour movements are more equal and inclusive, and often have very successful economies. Unions recognize that high productivity is the key to decent wages and good jobs, and many successful companies recognize that good labour relations benefit both parties to the agreement.

Since 1980, the total Canadian economic pie (real GDP per person) has grown by 50 per cent, but the real wage of an average worker has increased by just 10 per cent, and union workers have done no better than non-union workers. Over the entire period from 2000 to 2011, the wages of unionized workers rose by just 5 per cent on top of inflation.

Canada's real economic and social problem is stagnant living standards for the broad middle class as a whole, a steady increase in very low paid and insecure jobs, and rapidly growing inequality of income and wealth as the gains from economic growth go to top income earners.

Seen from this perspective, a strong labour movement is not the problem, but rather an important part of the solution. Unions helped create the Canadian middle class, and we need strong unions to help return us to broadly-shared prosperity.

This article originally appeared on Huffington Post Canada.

Attack on unions is a threat to shared prosperity in Canada

Broadbent Institute releases new report: “Union Communities, Healthy Communities”

OTTAWA--The right-wing’s regressive anti-union rhetoric and U.S. styled attacks on the labour movement threatens Canada’s prosperity, says a new report by the Broadbent Institute. The report, Union Communities, Healthy Communities debunks the conservative movement’s attacks on labour and makes the case that unions are vital to stable economic growth.

"The current right-wing attack on the labour movement is part of an attack on all progressives in Canada,” explained Executive Director Rick Smith. “Unions have been a major force for a more democratic, inclusive and sustainable Canada, and the progressive movement as a whole must strongly defend labour rights."

The report builds on the Broadbent Institute’s Equality Project in highlighting how unions have contributed an equalizing effect and helped to create broad-based prosperity.  Unions successfully promoted fair wages, decent working conditions, social programs, and public services which benefit all citizens – not just unionized works.  

"Economic research shows that unions are a major force for greater equality, and that a strong labour movement benefits all Canadians,” said Senior Policy Advisor Andrew Jackson.   “Unions have been a force for progressive community change.”

In the coming days, the Broadbent Institute will release a series of responses to this paper written by a number of prominent Canadians from outside the trade union movement.

Read Union Communities, Healthy Communities today.

Seriously, Canadian conservatives? Ron Paul?

As Canada's right wing gathers this weekend in Ottawa, the conservative movement finds itself looking in a strange -- and somewhat dangerous -- place for inspiration.

Conservatives attending the 2013 Manning Centre networking conference will hear from the usual roster of cheerleaders, political practitioners and ideological elders. But this year's keynote is something different. A surprising guest whose ideas can only be described as completely outside the Canadian mainstream: former U.S. Congressman Ron Paul.

Mr. Paul is well known in the United States for his radical notions. Often described as the "intellectual godfather of the Tea Party," Mr. Paul takes libertarian philosophy to new heights. His positions and policies are offside most U.S. Republicans, let alone Canada's more temperate Red Tory traditions.

One need not dig too deeply to figure out why.

In a 2007 CNBC interview, Mr. Paul suggested that the US Federal Reserve should be abolished in favour of a system of competing currencies: "We can't get rid of the 'Fed' in a day or a week but we could legalize competing currencies...if people don't like competing currencies... they can opt-out and start dealing in gold and silver."

In his 2011 book, Liberty Defined, he opined that, "We need to give up our dependence on the state... it is far better to live in an imperfect world than it is to live in a despotic world ruled by people who lord it over us through force and intimidation." I am left scratching my head at this bizarre statement: which despotic agents of the state, exactly, is Mr. Paul referring to? Doctors? Nurses? Social workers? All of the above?

Mr. Paul has been particularly outspoken on a number of other important issues. As a self-described "unshakeable foe of abortion," he has gone so far as to introduce legislation "which would negate the effect of Roe v. Wade." Mr. Paul opposes gun control because he believes it "clears a path for violence and makes aggression more likely." Go figure. Mr. Paul even wants to abolish the minimum wage: during a 2011 Republican primary debate, he argued that "minimum wage is a mandate. We're against mandates so why should we have it?"

Climate change -- which all Canadian political parties have now acknowledge to be real -- is still a fantasy to Mr. Paul. He suggests that "I don't think there's a conclusion yet... if you study the history, we've had a lot of climate changes."

Mr. Paul has spoken candidly about his views on sexual harassment in the workplace. During a Fox News interview, he stated that "...if people are insulted by, you know, rude behaviour, I don't think we need to make a federal case out of it... people should deal with it at home."

And on key votes he has frequently been virtually alone in speaking against what is essentially a right-left societal consensus. On the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act's passage, Mr. Paul was the only Congressman to vote against a resolution hailing the Act, and even gave a speech to Congress claiming that it "violated the Constitution and reduced individual liberty."

I could go on. Mr. Paul's record of opposition to most ideals Canadians hold dear is very lengthy.

The Manning Centre is, of course, free to invite anybody they wish to their party. Even the Tea Party. But my grandmother used to tell me that "You're known by the company you keep", which seems to me a fair comment in life as in politics. Of all the conservatives the Manning Centre could have invited to be the star attraction at their annual shindig, why Ron Paul? Is this supposed to be a foreshadowing of the future direction of Canada's conservative movement? Which of his, frankly, bizarre ideas does the Manning Centre agree with? How does the Centre see Mr. Paul's contribution as being a positive addition to our Canadian political conversation?

Most importantly: Which pieces of Ron Paul's extreme agenda do Canadian conservatives harbor the ambition of importing?

Canada's conservative movement has been working overtime over the last few years to convince Canadians that they are mainstream and on a roll. It is no surprise that my organization and I disagree with both the philosophy and (alleged) facts behind these conservative arguments. By welcoming Ron Paul to Canada, however, it is difficult to see how the Manning Centre furthers even its own stated objectives.

This article originally appeared on Huffington Post Canada.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore. Used under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 licence.

Canadians share progressive U.S. values

Viewing Canada - U.S. relations through the prism of supposed national self-interest has led many commentators to reject U.S. criticism of Canadian energy and environmental policies. Indeed, a recent Globe and Mail editorial goes so far as to denounce as a “threat” the view from Washington that Canada should get serious about dealing with climate change.

This is deeply ironic insofar as the vast majority of Canadians—78 per cent would—according to opinion polls, have voted to re-elect U.S. President Barack Obama rather than support his opponent Governor Mitt Romney if they had been given the chance.

Canada has long viewed itself as a more progressive country than the United States, more committed to the collective pursuit of the common good through democratic government, more supportive of paying taxes to support decent social programs and public services, and less wedded to the view that market freedoms are the only ones that really count.

But Obama’s recent inaugural address rang many more progressive notes than we have heard in Canada for quite some time, certainly from the Harper government.

The speech argued that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action” and that “social programs are the commitments we make to each other.”

It denounced growing income inequality, saying that “our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well, and a growing many barely make it.”

Obama’s subsequent state of the union address spelled out an agenda for the restoration of the broad middle-class based upon public investments, a transition to a clean, green economy as part of a strategy to deal with the fundamental challenge of climate change, higher minimum wages to help the working poor, and securing real equality of opportunity through major investments in early childhood learning.

Obama also underlined the world’s responsibility to future generations to deal with accelerating and destructive climate change.

The president concluded by saying that “We are citizens. ...  It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others.”

Canadian progressives, indeed the great majority of Canadians, would applaud these sentiments. The key question is: why are they not embraced by our own government?

The Conservatives, let us recall, ripped up the Kyoto agreement and have done next to nothing to deal with climate change. They have failed to impose long-promised caps on carbon emissions by the tar sands and other polluting industries, and have portrayed opposition to their agenda as politically motivated, and, indeed, dictated by foreign interests.

It’s little wonder that many Americans think Canada is environmentally reckless when we have placed all our eggs in the basket of the expansion of oil and gas exports, over-riding entirely legitimate concerns regarding how we deal with the impacts on the environment and the interests of First Nations.

The Conservatives have signally failed to create the new middle-class jobs in a growing green economy which could have been replacing lost jobs in the hard-hit manufacturing sector. Our efforts are hugely limited in comparison to the strides that have been made south of the border, and voices calling for major new federal investments in public transit, energy conservation, and renewable energy have been rejected.

Far from talking about rebuilding the middle-class amidst rapidly increasing inequality, the Conservatives have launched a major attack on the right of the labour movement to participate in democratic debate; have undermined our Employment Insurance and public pension programs; and have delivered sweeping tax cuts to corporate Canada.

Far from investing in real equality of opportunity for all our children, the Conservatives scrapped the embryonic child care and early learning program they inherited from the previous government. Their social vision is confined to promising even more tax cuts largely tilted to the most affluent once the federal budget is balanced. 

In this dismal context, we are ill-advised to reject legitimate comment. Canadians can only hope that the progressive sentiments being voiced in the United States spill over to our side of the border.

This article originally appeared in the Hill Times. Photo: Center for American Progress Action Fund. Used under a Creative Commons by-sa 2.0 license.

Broadbent Institute Grows Team with New Executive Director Rick Smith

OTTAWA—The Broadbent Institute is excited to welcome Dr. Rick Smith as its new Executive Director. Smith will take the helm of the rapidly-growing think-tank from Kathleen Monk, who will remain with the Institute as Senior Advisor.

“I am delighted to welcome Rick to the team,” said Broadbent Institute founder Ed Broadbent. “Rick is a talented organization-builder with a proven track record of positive growth in the Canadian not-for-profit community.”

Rick Smith joins the Broadbent Institute following nearly ten years as Executive Director of Environmental Defence, a leading Canadian charity with a focus on pollution reduction and human health.  He is co-author of Slow Death by Rubber Duck, a bestselling 2009 book on the negative effects of toxic chemicals in everyday life.

With a Ph.D. from the University of Guelph, and history of work with a variety of progressive organizations, Smith’s career has been equal parts policy and politics.  A strong proponent of the "green economy", Smith is one of the founders, with the United Steelworkers, of Blue Green Canada. He also played a central role in the creation of the Ontario Greenbelt, the largest in the world, and the Ontario Green Energy and Green Economy Act.  

“Through its training of young activists, creation of high quality social democratic policy research, and commitment to leading public debate on those questions most critical to Canada’s future, the Broadbent Institute is rendering an important service to our country.  I look forward to all that our growing team will achieve in the years ahead,” said Smith.

“As our founding Executive Director, Kathleen Monk has provided energetic, commendable leadership and built a solid foundation upon which the Broadbent Institute can continue to grow,” explained Broadbent. “On behalf of the Board I want to thank Kathleen for staying on as Senior Advisor as we embark on this next phase of the Institute’s future.”

Rick Smith will begin his work at the Broadbent Institute on January 7, 2013.

Is Income Inequality a Problem in Canada?

This post originally appeared on the blog of TVO's The Agenda with Steve Paikin.

As part of TVO's contributions to the cross-media series "Why Poverty?", The Agenda is conducting online interviews with people who explore issues of poverty and who are trying to help the poor build better lives. 

Our latest is an interview with Andrew Jackson of the Broadbent Institute, a recently-founded progressive think tank named in honour of former federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent. Jackson talks to the Agenda about income inequality, the subject of a recent Broadbent Institute report, "Towards a More Equal Canada."

There will always be people that will have more than others. But Jackson argues that income inequality has reached levels in Canada that are a detriment not just to the poor and working poor, but to the middle class. 

This week, TVO's focus regarding "Why Poverty" is on the working poor. For more on that specific topic, check out TVO's infographic on the working poor in Ontario.

Experts, politicians weigh in on Broadbent Institute income inequality report

OTTAWA—Following the release of Towards a More Equal Canada, a discussion paper on income inequality, the Broadbent Institute has published the first of a series of responses to the report from a number of academics and politicians. This first round of responses includes opinions by Senator Hugh Segal and academics Luc Turgeon and Katherine Scott. Alongside the paper, these newly-released responses represent the next step in the Institute’s Equality Project.

“The public response to our paper has been tremendous,” says Broadbent Institute founder Ed Broadbent. “We are at a critical time in our history; it is more important than ever that we have a national discussion on income inequality.”

An Environics poll commissioned by the Broadbent Institute shows that Canadians are ready to challenge income inequality: 77% believe that income inequality is a major problem for Canada, and a clear majority – including a majority of Conservative voters – are willing to protect our social programs, even if it means paying higher taxes. 9 out of 10 respondents agreed that reducing income inequality should be a priority for the federal government.

“Canadians are prepared to have this discussion,” explained Broadbent. "It is my hope that these responses to our paper will prompt a wider national debate on the political choices that can reduce, or exacerbate, inequality."

Broadbent think-tank wants more 'wealth redistribution'

A left-wing think-tank led by former NDP leader Ed Broadbent says greater "wealth redistribution" is needed to battle income inequality in Canada.

The Broadbent Institute says the growing gap between the rich and the poor became the "defining political issue of our time" after the Occupy movement swept across North America last fall.

In response, the think-tank proposes raising corporate taxes, the creation of "good jobs" - employment with high labour standards and environmental protections - and expanding public services.

"Higher tax rates for very high-income earners are likely the most effective way to deal with the fact that the incomes of the top 1% are rising at the expense of everybody else," the report says. "Top tax rates today are certainly much lower than they were 20 years ago."

Broadbent's institute also argues Canada is currently moving backwards because for "every $1 increase in national earnings over the past 20 years, more than 30 cents have gone to the top 1%, while 70 cents have had to be shared among the bottom 99%."

Broadbent, who has also narrated a YouTube video on the topic, says societies with greater income inequality are generally more violent, less healthy and less prosperous.

The NDP built its election platform on the assumption that a higher corporate tax rate would bring in billions in additional revenue. Conservatives argue lower corporate rates attract foreign investors and create jobs.

http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/Politics/2012/10/09/20269321.html