At a recent event in Ottawa on income inequality, the moderator, The Hill Times publisher Jim Creskey, opened the discussion with the following quote:
Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.
It was a bit of a surprise to some that the statement comes from Pope Francis. The quote from Evangelii gaudium (2013) is direct and uncompromising in its criticism of the global economic system. It also affirms the need for justice and confirmed, to me at least, that faith communities have an important voice in this conversation.
Income inequality is increasing globally and in Canada. The recently released Oxfam report, An Economy for the 1%, highlights the incredible finding that 62 of the world’s richest people own as much wealth as the 3.6 billion poorest. This trend is closely accompanied by a concentration of political power and voice as well as the declining influence of workers and unions.
In Canada, the gap might not seem as drastic, but it’s there. The Institute for Research on Public Policy's new book, Income Inequality: The Canadian Story, indicates that there has been a decline of the middle class in Canada. This is in part because of changes to the tax and transfer system in the mid-1990s. Even marginal increases for some demographics have not countered the overall rise in living costs, the public deficit in underfunded infrastructure, and the erosion of social supports. And so, poverty persists in Canada. Indigenous people, recent immigrants and refugees, single parents, and children bear much of the burden of failed and inadequate policy measures.
Perhaps we don’t need much convincing that there is a problem, even a crisis. The gap between those who have and those who do not seems to be ever-widening. We have diagnosed the problem and the impacts of income inequality. But we also need to identify a way of looking at economic change and improving policy directions.
We tend to look first for solutions by redistributive measures through the tax and transfer system. Certainly, governments should take important income redistribution measures, including the federal government’s new Canada Child Benefit. This will provide an income-tested supplement to families and potentially raise significant numbers of children out of poverty.
But more broadly, we need to understand what makes market systems more just and fair. This means finding new ways to live our economic lives together. We could enact policies such as living wages and fair compensation. We can also work with models that faith communities have long supported in Canada and elsewhere, such as co-operative movements and social economy networks.
We must consider those things we share in common as social goods. This includes affordable social housing, childcare, and healthcare, which need ongoing investment and support.
In Evangelii gaudium, Pope Francis states that “the dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies.”
A faith perspective places human dignity, the common good, and the integrity of creation at the centre of economic life. Faith communities are calling for public justice. We want to see Canada’s public policy decisions reflect this understanding of what living together as a beloved community means.
Increasing income inequality reflects a systemic flight from that deeper understanding.
Our leaders have the difficult task of developing strong policy that responds to the needs of everyone. It is essential that they are guided by sound knowledge of how these structures and systems work.
Faith communities must ensure that what is most important in our lives together – care for each other and the earth – claims a space at the centre of our social, political, and economic lives.