May 28, 2008

Inequality rots social foundations

May 07, 2008 04:30 AM
Carol Goar

Inequality corrodes a society quietly.

A decade ago, Mel Lastman was astonished to discover that there were homeless people in Toronto. Today we're inured to the sight of sleeping bags on the sidewalk and panhandlers outside stores, restaurants and subway stations.

Twenty-five years ago, community workers set up food banks as an emergency response to a brief recession. Today, despite one of the longest expansions in Canadian history, they're permanent fixtures in almost every municipality.

A generation ago, corporate executives earned 40 times as much as their employees. Workers grumbled, but negotiated decent contracts. Today, the country's top 100 chief executive officers earn 248 times the average wage. Most workers have no job security, few benefits and no union to protect them.

The 2006 census, released last week, confirmed that Canada is turning into a nation of "haves" and "have-nots." Those in the middle are treading water arduously. Their children's living standard is likely to be lower than theirs.

No one was particularly shocked. The numbers weren't new. The gap between rich and poor wasn't a surprise. After a day or two of hand-wringing, most commentators moved on to other issues.

This lack of debate – in the legislatures, the business world, the lecture halls and regrettably the media – is as worrisome as the statistics. It leads Canadians to believe inequality doesn't matter.

A team of researchers at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative has spent the past 18 months trying to break through this complacency and explain why the polarization of wealth is too important to ignore.

The release of last week's census data prompted Trish Hennessy, the director of the Inequality Project, to approach seven top academics – four economists, a political scientist, a sociologist and a philosopher – with a simple request. Tell Canadians why inequality matters in 1,000 words or less.

It would be impossible to do justice to their answers (which can be found at www.policyalternatives.ca) in a newspaper column. But here are a few snippets:

Frank Cunningham, professor of philosophy and political science at the University of Toronto and former principal of Innis College: "When a democratic society contains significant inequalities, it begins to resemble an autocracy. People understand themselves to be politically impotent."

Jon Kesselman, economics professor at Simon Fraser University, research fellow of the C.D. Howe Institute and Canada Research Chair on Public Finance: "The further the incomes of top earners diverge from the average, the more divorced they become from the needs of the average citizen. For example, the push for privatization of health care is driven in part by a minority who can easily afford to pay for their own needs directly."

Charles Beach, director of the John Deutsch Institute at Queen's University: "When the poor do not have the opportunity to reach the full potential of their talents, economic growth suffers. Increased resentment, disaffection, social conflict and crime potentially associated with substantially widened inequality could also reduce the security of property rights."

Lars Osberg, chair of the department of economics at Dalhousie University: "When it can be plainly seen that Canadian society does not much care about the rights of its least fortunate, the question may well occur to others: Why should anybody care very much about the rights of other citizens?"

Welcome as these contributions are, more voices are needed, speaking in the language of the streets, the office, the theatre and the schoolyard. More passion is needed from parents who want to raise their children in a country with a healthy middle class and a shared set of values. More leadership is needed from public figures who stand for a Canada of fairness and opportunity.

Our parents and grandparents worked hard to build a society in which no one would have to line up at a soup kitchen or beg for spare change. We're letting it slip away.

Next: What can be done?

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