The party's over and the poor weren't even invited

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  • May 9, 2008

{mosimage}Economists — practitioners of the “gloomy science” — are gleefully telling us the party’s over. The boom times have disappeared, pffft, into thin air, replaced by recession and unemployment. But statisticians are now saying that most Canadians were not even invited to the party to begin with.

Statistics Canada released a report May 1 — a day when Catholics celebrate St. Joseph the Worker — that confirmed what most young adults and many immigrants have long known from experience. Despite their hard-earned university and college degrees, they are getting poorer while the rich are getting richer. In fact, most people’s incomes have hardly budged in 20 years, when inflation is taken into account. Full-time working Canadians earned a median income of $41,401 in 2005, compared to $41,348 in 1980 (in 2005 constant dollars). That’s a whopping $53, enough to buy one-and-a-half cases of beer — in 2005 dollars, of course.

The real bad news in the report, “2006 Census: Earnings, Income and Shelter Costs,” is for people at the bottom of the heap. While the incomes of the richest 20 per cent of Canadians rose 16.4 per cent over that 25-year period, those in the bottom one-fifth saw their incomes drop by 20.6 per cent.

There are also telling numbers for immigrants: “In 1980, recent immigrant men who had some employment income earned 85 cents for each dollar received by Canadian-born men. By 2005, the ratio had dropped to 63 cents. The corresponding numbers for recent immigrant women were 85 cents and 56 cents, respectively.”

Meanwhile, 3.5 million Canadians in 2005 were in the low-income category. Of them, 880,000 were under age 17.

All of this is a serious indictment of both trickle-down economics and the government policies based on this rosy theory that helping the rich get richer will mean good times for everyone. In recent decades, Canada’s policy makers have moved in two main directions: cutting taxes in ways that most benefit the wealthy, and applying triage to Canada’s rickety social safety net.

Economic decisions made by governments are also moral decisions. The common good of all should be their objective. Yet policies such as GST tax cuts merely reduced the government’s ability to respond creatively to Canada’s real challenges while failing as an incentive to saving or improving productivity. And government incentives for the natural resource industries have encouraged unthinking exploitation of the environment while neglecting the development of a highly educated and skilled workforce.

While governments have limited the vulnerability of the country’s poorest citizens to serious want, the main thrust of our political leadership has been to curry favour from those best-equipped to look after themselves.

Courageous political leadership is needed to address the injustice in an economic system in which immigrants and the young find themselves increasingly left behind. History will judge us by how well we treat the least among us. Considering the last 25 years, we should be ashamed.

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