Senator Art Eggleton tries a new tack in his fight against poverty

Posted on August 26, 2012 in Equality Policy Context

Source: — Authors: – opinion/editorialopinion
16 August 2012.   Carol Goar

Senator Art Eggleton has learned a painful lesson over the past two years. Canadians don’t respond to speeches about poverty.

The former Toronto mayor, former cabinet minister and longtime Liberal MP hit the road following the release of A Call to Action on Poverty, a massive report by the Senate subcommittee on cities, which he chaired. It was loaded with facts, figures and heart-rending stories. It made affordable recommendations. It was written with conviction and urgency.

The 362-page tome attracted no attention in Ottawa.

Eggleton’s appeal to the public didn’t fare much better. Audiences listened but they didn’t take up the cause, they didn’t lobby the prime minister to make poverty a priority, they didn’t roll up their sleeves to tackle the problem.

This spring, the veteran politician tried a new tack. Instead of focusing on poverty, he talked about inequality. He showed how the widening income gulf between the rich and the rest of society was jeopardizing economic growth, stoking intergenerational tension, breeding urban violence and stifling hope.

His message finally hit home. “I find my speeches on this subject resonate with more people,” Eggleton said. “They will respond to what they see as unfairness.”

This isn’t entirely surprising. Self-interest is a stronger motivator than moral obligation. And Canadians are beginning to suspect they’re caught in something deeper and more disruptive than the weak economic recovery that is underway. Employers aren’t hiring. The link between effort and reward has weakened to the breaking point. And all governments have to offer is a pitiless prescription: Tighten your belt more.

“We’re going too far with these austerity measures,” Eggleton said. “When I show people what’s happening (4 per cent of Canadian households control 67 per cent of the wealth; the nation’s 100 top corporate executives make 189 times the pay of the average worker; the middle class is rapidly disappearing), they find it shocking. It’s not the rich and the poor anymore; it’s the rich and the rest.”

Unfortunately, that’s where the consensus ends.

Eggleton’s solutions are vague enough to forestall outright rejection, but they make listeners uneasy. They don’t want to pay higher taxes, don’t want to pour more money into social programs and don’t see much point in educating dropouts and troublemakers.

Drawing on his accounting skills (his profession before politics) and his experience as a big-city mayor, backbench MP, cabinet minister and senator, Eggleton tries to make these options palatable:

• Tax reform doesn’t necessary mean higher taxes, he says. It can mean closing loopholes that benefit the wealthy. It can mean adding a new tax bracket for the ultra-rich. It can mean turning tax deductions and tax credits (which reduce an individual’s tax bill) into refundable tax credits (which put cash in the hands of people with no taxable income).

• Social assistance reform doesn’t necessarily mean pouring more money into welfare, he says. It can mean smarter spending. Many current policies are “penny-wise but pound-foolish,” Eggleton maintains. Moreover, policy-makers ignore the cost of poverty. It drives up health-care expenditures, court and incarceration outlays and spending on emergency shelters. On the other side of the ledger, it reduces economic productivity.

• Investing in post-secondary education for disadvantaged kids doesn’t mean throwing good money after bad. It can mean unlocking the talent and capitalizing on the potential the country will need to cope with its demographic challenges: an aging workforce, a low birth rate, widespread skill shortages.

Eggleton admits his message runs directly counter to what Canadians are hearing from their governments, employers and mainstream economists. He acknowledges that terms such as “egalitarian,” “redistribution” and “sharing” have vanished from the political vocabulary.

But he sees hopeful signs. Shortly before the House of Commons closed for its summer recess, MP Scott Brison won approval for a motion calling on the finance committee to study income inequality. Twenty-three Conservatives broke ranks to ensure its passage.

A day later, parliamentarians announced the creation of an all-party anti-poverty caucus co-chaired by Conservative MP Michael Chong, NDP MP Jean Crowder and Eggleton (its founder). It will spend the next year finding non-partisan ways to free those trapped at the bottom of the income hierarchy.

Fighting poverty is still his primary objective, Eggleton says. But moral crusades don’t move people. So he has widened his focus, revised his message and made it everybody’s issue.

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