Empty gestures in throne speech miss the mark

TheRecord.com – opinion
Oct. 18, 2013.   By Ernie Ginsler

So, Stephen Harper wants to be the middle-class consumer’s new best friend.

Don’t get me wrong, cafeteria shopping for cable channels has been a long time coming, and I appreciate this small gesture in the Conservative government’s throne speech to save me a few dollars each month.

Cheaper cheese — that’s good, too. However, neither of these, or any of the other offerings made to middle-income Canadians Wednesday, are really going to make a significant improvement in our quality of life. And there are some more important things I believe our federal government could, and should, be addressing.

After compensating for inflation, the median income (the middle of the middle class) for all Canadian families was lower in 2011 than in 2007 — before the recession. The federal government needs to do something to address the shrinking middle that is more fundamental than a few dime-store trinkets.

The more our society becomes divided between the rich and the poor, the less stable it becomes. And the rich have been doing just fine. The share of all income earned by the top 20 per cent of Canadians increased to 47 per cent in 2010 from 43 per cent in 1976. Everyone else’s share went down, except for that of the bottom fifth, which was unchanged at 4.2 per cent of all income.

We simply cannot continue to pay the cost of keeping people poor — the latest estimate is that ignoring poverty costs twice as much as eliminating it.

Fully half of status First Nations children live below the poverty line. This number grows to 62 per cent in Manitoba and 64 per cent in Saskatchewan. Since gaining power seven years ago, the Harper government has done nothing significant to address the longstanding poverty of aboriginal peoples.

The effects of poverty are well known. It results in poor health — both physical and mental — lower educational achievement, detachment from the labour force, and many other negative and costly conditions. The government needs to address this issue now.

Speaking of poverty, we used to be able to find out what the low-income rate was for single-parent families here in Waterloo Region. This indicator is important, because as mentioned above, children growing up in poverty often face considerable difficulties, and our local United Ways, community foundations and government funders spend a lot of money aimed at reducing poverty.

Unfortunately, the response rate on the new national household survey that replaced the long-form census was so low that Statistics Canada won’t publish this data for our community. The Harper government needs to fix this, too, for next time around. We paid $20 million more for this lack of data.

The incomes of new immigrants are also in decline. While governments recognize that ongoing immigration is fundamental to our population and economic growth, we continue to do a terrible job of using the knowledge and skills of those who come here.

While better skills-training is important, it won’t come close to dealing with unemployment. There are currently about six unemployed people for every job vacancy in Canada. Filling all those vacancies tomorrow would decrease the number of the unemployed by only 15 per cent.

We need more jobs. Large financially successful companies, whose tax rates have decreased significantly since Harper came to power, are sitting on billions of dollars in profits — not creating jobs. It looks like the tax rates are so low, big businesses can’t find anything useful to do with all the money they’re making.

Since 2006, the federal corporate tax rate has been reduced by about 10 percentage points. It’s time to tax either “dead money” or large profits.

All the above are more important than cheaper cable and cheese.

Ernie Ginsler teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Lyle S. Hallman School of Social Work.

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