'More rapidly than almost every other country among the wealthiest members of the OECD, we are becoming deeply unequal. Who knows? We may even catch up to the United States.'
By Ed Broadbent
Originally published 24 Nov. 2009 in the Toronto Globe and Mail
Ottawa (25 Nov. 2009) - Why have others nearly wiped out child poverty, but Canada has not?
All nations have myths about themselves. Canadians are not exempt. Looking to the south, we regularly proclaim our moral superiority: While Americans are out for themselves, we share and care.
Well, once upon a time, we did. But no longer. More rapidly than almost every other country among the wealthiest members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), we are becoming deeply unequal. Who knows? We may even catch up to the United States.
Nothing better illustrates this reality than the two-decade trend in child poverty. Twenty years ago (this week), all parties in the House of Commons voted for a motion to abolish child poverty by the year 2000. Reform was in the air. Just a few days earlier, with Canada playing a leading role, the United Nations had adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
We thought an 11-year agenda to virtually overcome child poverty was quite plausible, and the 1990s did turn out to be one of the very best decades in economic growth. According to the trickle-down soothsayers in politics, the media and the academic world, we all should have benefited. Instead, 20 years after the motion was passed, Canada's level of poverty is virtually unchanged.
Almost all income growth has gone to the top 10%, and their share of the national income has substantially increased. In contrast, after two decades, the child-poverty rate has dropped a mere two percentage points, to 9.5%.
Why is it that Finland, Sweden and Denmark have almost wiped out child poverty, and we have not? Why do more than 600,000 Canadian kids wake up hungry and go to school trying to read, write and think on an empty stomach?
First, we should have no illusions about where our poor children are to be found. Most are in families with two adults. Most poor adults work. Most of them have incomes so low that they can't afford housing and can't adequately feed or clothe their kids. If kids are members of aboriginal or immigrant Canadian families, the odds are even much greater that they will be poor.
Second, this poverty was not inevitable. Mostly it is the product of governments that have neither shared nor cared. As a Unicef report last Friday pointed out, Canadian politicians have failed our children. During the 1990s, the federal government abandoned a leadership role for Canada's poor. It unilaterally cancelled the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP) with the provinces, eliminated all low-cost housing programs, ceased to set the pattern for minimum wages and failed to bring in a national child-care program. Perhaps most serious and unbelievable of all, it exacerbated the inequality that was emerging in the marketplace by changing the income-tax system to the advantage of the richest Canadians.
On the 20th anniversary of a noble parliamentary resolution, let's acknowledge our failure. And then reverse course. Instead of an income-tax policy favouring the rich, let's do the opposite. For a start, let's get our poor, hard-working families what they need immediately: more money.
For more than a decade, it is upper-income Canadians - not the poor or middle class - who have disproportionately benefited from globalization and deregulation. Therefore, I say that increasing their share of income taxes would be based on neither greed nor class envy. It should be called justice.
In the next budget, let's impose a six-point increase in income tax on those earning more than $250,000 a year (whose average taxable income is $600,000). While leaving them with very high incomes, this would provide $3.7-billion in additional revenue. All of this should be used to increase the National Child Benefit Supplement (NCBS) and thus help our poorest children. With this single act, we would significantly make up for two decades of neglect and make a major dent in child poverty.
At a time of growing inequality in their own countries, U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown are now imposing similar taxes on their richest citizens. Surely we Canadians, living in a country that is setting the OECD record in growing inequality, can do the same. It's time we restored sharing and caring to the national agenda. It's time to act for our children.
Ed Broadbent moved the 1989 motion on child poverty in his last speech as leader of the federal New Democratic Party.
The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE