Look at me, I’m Mr. Rags-To-Riches!
NationalPost.com – FullComment/letters
Nov 22, 2012. John Moore
I, John Moore, am a Canadian rags-to-riches success story. Who knew?
According to the analytical framework employed in a new study from the right-leaning Fraser Institute, I pulled myself up from society’s lowest rungs. I am living the Horatio Alger myth.
That study — lauded by Jesse Kline — claims to turn everything we know about income inequality and income mobility on its head. Its authors, Charles Lammam and Neil Veldhuis, insist their research “overthrows the claims of Occupy protesters.” Indeed, they argue that the story of income inequality and stagnating wages is “a great fictional tale.”
So how did they arrive at this conclusion? They crunched the earnings of a million Canadians over a period of 19 years, and discovered that 83% of us moved up the income ladder over that period of time.
That’s impressive. As a statistical parlour trick.
Once you leave the parlour, you go outside and find the same income-stultified society that poor people have to deal with every day.
Let’s use me as an example.
Lammam and Veldhuis employ two benchmark years, 1990 and 2009. In 1990, I was making $18,000 a year, which put me in the bottom 40% of earners. By 2009, I was making well above the national median income. I might even qualify for the top 20%. According to the Fraser Institute, that life story I just told you “overthrows the claims of Occupy protesters.”
Except, of course, it doesn’t.
In 1990, I was holding down my first job as a radio news anchor three years into my career. In 2009 — still working at the same company — I’d worked my way up the food chain. Over the years, through cost of living increases and a few promotions, I increased my income. I wasn’t Pip from Great Expectations. I was exhibiting a typical Canadian labour pattern — starting with a low income and then graduating to a higher one as I gained experience.
But here’s the important part, which makes nonsense of the Fraser study: I was never “poor” in the first place. I was born into a middle-class neighbourhood with a teacher for a mother and an ad man for a father. I was raised in a family that valued structure, reading and discourse. I went to above-average public schools. I had enough money to pay for my university degrees. Yes, my first job paid crap. But so do many first jobs entered into by ambitious, well-educated children of well-educated parents.
The Fraser Institute study hinges on the false premise that because someone starts their career in the salary basement, they are necessarily “poor,” in the sense of the word that is commonly understood. By that assumption, a 22-year-old commerce-degree holder from a first-rate university who’s doing a Bay Street internship while sleeping on a friend’s sofa is exactly the same as a high-school drop-out from the wrong side of the tracks who will spend the rest of her career working the cash at a supermarket. Almost all of us set out from the same set of starters blocks, but we’re not all running the same race.
There’s no doubt that some poor people do manage to lift themselves out of poverty. One of my radio listeners wrote to tell me about being born in Montreal’s Griffintown to a family of six kids. She put herself through night school working for $80 a week at Dominion Textile and today is a highly successful career woman. That is a great story of grit and determination. Probably also luck and mentoring. But it’s not a common one. And to pretend it’s the story of most Canadians ignores issues of poverty, race, status, gender, education and countless other variables that factor into lifetime economic outcomes.
Far from blowing myths out of the water, the Fraser Institute is merely muddying the currents.
John Moore is host of Moore in the Morning on Newstalk radio 1010 in Toronto.
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