A useful reality check for Canadians

TheStar.com – Opinion
February 05, 2010.   Carol Goar

The stereotypes are so firmly lodged in our brains that they shape the way we see ourselves and envision our lives.

We are less competitive than our American neighbours, less entrepreneurial, less driven, less likely to reach the financial pinacle.

They, on the other hand, live in more a more polarized society than ours. The top is higher, the bottom is lower and it is harder to move upward.

There is some truth to these perceptions, says Miles Corak of the University of Ottawa, one of the world’s leading researchers on intergenerational mobility. But there is also a lot of myth.

He just completed a study for the Pew Charitable Trusts, a family foundation in the United States, exploring the differences between the two nations.

He found clear evidence that there is more economic mobility in Canada than the United States. Twenty-two per cent of American sons born to fathers on the lowest rung of the earnings ladder spent their lives there. In Canada, the proportion was just 16 per cent. Thirty per cent of American sons of fathers whose income fell below the median climbed into the upper half of earners. In Canada, the proportion was 38 per cent.

“There is a greater tendency for American children starting out at the bottom to remain stuck there as adults than there is in Canada,” he concluded.

(He focused solely on men because the female labour force participation rate has been rising steadily over the past half-century, making intergenerational comparisons misleading.)

What Corak did not find was any significant evidence of a difference in the values, attitudes or ambitions of the two peoples.

Canadians and Americans shared the same dream: To be financially secure, to be free to make their own choices and to see their children do better than they’d done.

They had similar views on how to reach these goals. Both expressed a strong sense of personal responsibility. Both said hard work was more important than any other factor – socio-economic status, education, race, gender or parental income – in determining how successful they were. Both said they would rather live in a country of equal opportunity than a country where wealth was evenly distributed.

There was only one divergence: Canadians considered their government more of a help than a hindrance in their quest to get ahead. Americans felt the opposite way.

To probe this finding, the Pew research team presented citizens of both countries with a range of policy options and asked for their preferences.

Americans were vehement about their priorities. They wanted their government to keep jobs in the United States; make college/university more affordable; reduce crime in their communities; and lower health-care costs.

Canadians were less hungry for change. But their priorities – with the exception of health-care – were similar. Seventy-five per cent (as opposed to 81 per cent of Americans) wanted domestic jobs protected; 70 per cent (as opposed to 75 per cent of Americans) wanted more affordable post-secondary education; and 60 per cent (compared to 69 per cent of Americans) wanted crime reduced.

To Corak, this signalled a serious gap between what Americans want and what their government is doing. “There is an unmet need for better public policy in the U.S.,” he said.

From a Canadian perspective, the study only tells part of the story. It doesn’t compare us to societies more mobile than ours (Denmark, Norway and Finland are the leaders) and it doesn’t say whether our performance has gotten better or worse in recent years.

But it does provide a useful reality check. We are not as different from Americans as we think. We just see the role of government differently.

The study, Chasing the Same Dream, Climbing Different Ladders, is available online at www.pewtrusts.org.

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