Wealth inequality poll finds Canadians want a much more level society

Daniel Tencer / Huffington Post Canada

Canadians “vastly underestimate” the extent of wealth inequality in Canada, but would still like to see a much more equal society, according to research carried out for the left-leaning Broadbent Institute.

The survey of 3,000 respondents found Canadians believe the richest 20 per cent control about 55.5 per cent of Canada’s wealth. In reality, this group controls more than two-thirds, or 67.4 per cent, according to StatsCan data.

But poll respondents said that’s far too much; on average, they would like to see the wealthiest 20 per cent control about 30.3 per cent of national wealth. It’s doubtful Canada has ever been that equal.

The Broadbent Institute argues that inequality isn’t really a partisan issue. While 86 per cent of respondents overall said the wealth gap is a problem, fully 74 per cent of Conservative voters agreed.

The numbers reflect similar sentiments in the U.S., where the public as a whole also underestimates the size of the wealth gap, and also prefers a much more equal society.

In a 2010 study, Americans said they wanted the top 20 per cent to control roughly the same amount of wealth as Canadians do -- 32 per cent, compared to 30.3 per cent in Canada.

But in the U.S., the reality is shockingly unequal, with the top 20 per cent controlling 84 per cent of the country’s wealth.

Canadians would also like to see the poorest 20 per cent get a larger share of the pie. Poll respondents on average estimated that the bottom quintile controls 5.8 per cent of wealth, but would like to see this group have about 11.5 per cent.

In reality, the bottom 20 per cent “do not control any wealth at all,” in the Broadbent Institute’s words, as debt outstrips assets among the poorest Canadians.

The survey found multipartisan support for various policies aimed to reduce the wealth gap.

Seventy-five per cent said corporate taxes, which have been steadily cut since 2000, should be rolled back to pre-2008 levels. Eighty per cent agreed that the highest income tax bracket should be raised.

And fully 83 per cent backed the notion that politicians should take a vow not to institute any tax policy that would increase the gap.

A large majority -- 80 per cent -- say the wealth gap has grown in Canada over the past decade, including 76 per cent of Conservative voters.

But the data suggests that the real increase in inequality took place in the 1990s, when governments slashed social and health care spending amid budget crises, and reduced the number of income tax brackets.

However, some researchers argue that inequality in Canada is considerably worse than the numbers show, because the wealthiest earners have become much better at hiding their incomes.