Why you should care about inequality

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Fri Jan 07 2011.   Carol Goar, Editorial Board

Barring an unexpected economic surge, Canada isn’t going to create enough jobs to lift struggling families onto solid ground in 2011.

Barring an unlikely change of priorities in Ottawa or at Queen’s Park, the poor aren’t going to get much help from government.

And barring a sudden outbreak of public generosity, charities aren’t going to be able to take care of the country’s most vulnerable citizens.

So who will keep Canada from becoming a callous, ever more inequitable nation?

You could.

Before you dismiss this possibility as utopian or unaffordable, do a quick cost-benefit analysis:

Unless you belong to the richest 20 per cent of the population — whose family income starts at $120,000 — you’re losing ground. You’re either working longer and harder to preserve your standard of living or you’re falling back.

Unless you’re prepared to devote an ever-growing portion of your taxes to police, prisons and homeless shelter, you have an interest in curbing the income polarization that is turning Canada into a nation of extremes.

Unless you think it is coincidence that nations with a relatively equitable distribution of wealth — the Nordic countries, Denmark, Poland, France — fared better in the 2008-09 recession than those with largest disparities — the United States, Britain, Ireland, Spain, Russia — you have a reason to worry about an unbridgeable gap between the executive class and everyone else.

Unless you think Canada is smart enough to defy the pattern of history, you and your 34.3 million fellow citizens are on a risky path. Every society in which a tiny elite has amassed a vastly disproportionate share of the wealth — from 16-century Spain to America in the 1920s — has lost its footing, leading to a either traumatic collapse or an attenuated decline.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, calls the spreading chasm between rich and poor “the dark side” of globalization. He warned in a recent speech that “unequal countries have worse social indicators, a poorer human development record and higher degrees of economic insecurity and anxiety.”

But what can you do, as a citizen, a voter or a taxpayer, to counteract the trend?

You can share more of your income with those who desperately need help. The median charitable donation in Canada last year was $250. It’s true that increasing your giving won’t turn things around. But if enough Canadians did it, non-profit organizations would be able to withstand the cutbacks governments are making and politicians would sense a shift in public priorities.

You can talk to your friends and colleagues about living in a country that has returned to pre-Great Depression levels of inequality. There’s no need to wait for the government to get a public debate going.

You can email or write to your MP, provincial representative or any party leader asking what he/she is doing or planning to do to narrow the gulf between rich and poor. You may get a form letter back, but your concern will register. Political parties keep track of the issues voters raise.

You can encourage any organization to which you belong — your church, your book club, your alumni association, your seniors’ group — to speak out about the disturbing bifurcation of Canadian society.

You can get involved in the coming elections, supporting candidates dedicated to narrowing the gulf between rich and poor or working as an activist outside the political system.

You can join a global network such as the Equality Trust ( www.equalitytrust.org.uk) and stand with others willing to challenge the omnipotence of market forces.

There is another option of course: hanging on fiercely to your shrinking piece of the national pie. But it will keep shrinking.

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