Wake-up call in census data

TheStar.com – comment/editorial – Wake-up call in census data
May 03, 2008

The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is flatlining. That was the daunting message this week from Statistics Canada in its analysis of data from the latest census in comparison to the numbers from a quarter-century ago.

For individuals, “median” earnings (the point at which half of the population are higher and half are lower) rose just $53 from $41,348 in 1980 (adjusted for inflation) to $41,401 in 2005, reported StatsCan. That connotes a middle class on a treadmill.

Yes, as the National Post was quick to point out on its front page yesterday in a column that accused StatsCan of promoting “class warfare,” family incomes are up for both rich and poor (although more for the former than the latter). But that is because there are far more two-income families than there were in 1980. People are working harder, in many cases just to stay even.

And in the Toronto area, median family incomes actually fell from 2000 to 2005. That prompted one urban expert to tell the Star that Toronto risks becoming “a city of the servant class.”

StatsCan’s message ought to (but probably won’t) stifle the siren calls from the neo-conservatives for yet more cuts in taxes and government programs. For the progressive income tax and government social programs are the only bulwarks against an even wider gap between rich and poor in Canada. (StatsCan’s earnings figures are pre-tax and do not include income from government transfers.)

Indeed, one could argue that the census numbers make a case for repairing the damage that was done to our social safety net by neo-con inspired policies that were implemented in the 1990s at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. These include cuts in welfare payments (22 per cent in Ontario), severe restrictions on Employment Insurance (so that most unemployed people no longer qualify for it), abolition of social housing programs, reduction of income surtaxes and capital gains taxes, and imposition of higher user fees for recreational programs. One could add to that list the more recent elimination of a national daycare program and abrogation of the Kelowna accord by the federal Conservatives.

We also clearly need to do more to help settle immigrants. According to StatsCan, male immigrants today are getting just 63 cents for every dollar earned by Canadian-born men. That’s down significantly from 85 cents in 1980. The numbers for female immigrants are even worse. It’s a deeply worrisome trend.

These are all numbers to keep in mind the next time that federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty argues that what we really need is more tax cuts.

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