By Simon Lewchuk and Brad Wassink
This past spring, Parliament passed Motion M-315, asking the Standing Committee on Finance to study income inequality in Canada.
There are now indications that the committee will devote only one meeting—a mere few hours—to the study. So much for the will of the House. So much for an issue of growing concern for Canadians. Why would they be resistant to do the job? Why doesn’t inequality rate an equal opportunity for debate and action among Canadian Parliamentarians?
This time last year, the House Finance Committee devoted a fulsome nine meetings to its study on tax incentives for charitable donations. You’d think an issue as important as income inequality would at least merit the same amount of consideration.
This apparent lack of concern from our leaders should be cause for alarm. It’s not because the 99 per cent need another venue to rail against the one per cent. We cannot pin all the blame for our socio-economic ills on the rich; to do so is myopic and misguided. Simply focusing our attention on this group will not get the job done. Yes, income inequality is a serious threat to the common good and our collective wellbeing. But the people hardest hit by inequality are the poorest 10 per cent in our country, and this is something that 100 per cent of us have a responsibility to address.
Poverty leads to multiple other inequalities, including disproportionately poorer health outcomes, lower academic achievement, food insecurity, precarious housing and family stress and instability. Consider, for example, a 2010 study in Hamilton, Ont., where researchers discovered a 21-year life expectancy gap between low and high income neighbourhoods (65 and 86 years, respectively). Growing income inequality, especially for the lowest 10 per cent, makes a life of dignity and equality of opportunity increasingly elusive.
Canadians can argue about the causes of and solutions to income inequality, but one thing remains certain: we all have a collective responsibility to care for the least well-off in our society. We need not strive for absolute income equality, an impossible and undesirable scenario where everyone’s income is the same. But we can reduce inequality by raising the incomes of the lowest 10 per cent, so that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy a full, healthy life.
One of the ways we can do this is through our collective institutions, namely government. We have numerous policy options at our disposal—including fair and progressive taxation, improved income security programs, investments in secure and affordable housing—that could help build a more equal country and improve the wellbeing of the poorest Canadians.
If a measure of a society is how it treats its most poor and vulnerable, Canada’s elected officials would do well to give this issue the discussion it deserves.