Inequality at the top of everyone’s agenda

by Alex Paterson. Posted June 18, 2012


Not two years ago, income inequality was a pretty obscure topic. Not so today.

Earlier this year the World Economic Forum identified income inequality as a top global risk and in late 2011 President Obama called growing inequality “the defining issue of our time”.

In March, polling by Ekos found that 57% of Canadians felt that they would be worse off in 25 years’ time than they are today. In April, a Broadbent Institute poll found that three quarters of Canadians felt that the growing income gap in our country was a significant problem, a finding that was confirmed by a Forum poll for the National Post in May. Perhaps it should not have come as a surprise, then, that at the end of April, Liberal Finance critic, Scott Brison succeeded in securing cross-party support in the Canadian Parliament for his motion to form a committee to review income inequality in Canada.

Fast forward to June and the theme continues…..with the economists in the vanguard. The Presidential address at the annual Canadian Economics Association Conference was about trends in top income shares (and why these might matter) and just last week Nobel Prize winning economist, Joe Stiglitz published his latest book, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers our Future.

The debate is over, we all fall in with the President: this is a serious issue that policy-makers ignore at their own peril.

The difficulty lies in knowing what to do about the problem. Addressing inequality is not the same as addressing poverty, something that we have done with varying success for many decades now. It is likely to take action at all levels of the income spectrum (dampening growth at the top, shoring up the middle and actively transferring at the bottom). It also requires a whole new dimension of thought when designing health policy, education and training policy, labour policy, youth policy and policy on corporate governance.

It is action in these areas that will help create a world in which equality of opportunity becomes more meaningful and growth becomes more inclusive. Without such changes, the already substantial degree of public alienation from the institutions of state is only likely to grow, possibly with highly disruptive consequences.

Let us hope, then, that when our Parliament’s Standing Committee on Finance reports in one year from now, it has some firm and inspiring recommendations on how best to improve the equality of opportunity and prosperity for all Canadians. In the meantime, we at Canada 2020 will also be working away on the topic. So, if you have any views, please do share them with us. Left unattended, this is a problem that will certainly not go away.