October 2008: Poverty Amidst Plenty

Why isn’t inequality a key issue in the latest election?
October 1, 2008

This column is being written in the middle of a federal election campaign, the outcome of which most readers will know by the time they see it. Not being prescient, I can only hope, as I write in ignorance of what happens on October 14, that the outlook for the country will be better, not worse, after the ballots are counted. But my optimism, I’m afraid, is minimal.

I’m bothered by the failure of the parties, candidates and media—at least up to late September--to seriously debate the most crucial economic, social, and environmental challenges we face. One of these neglected issues (arguably the gravest) is the continued tolerance of high levels of poverty in a country so financially capable of stamping it out. Instead, inequality is more rampant than ever. The income gap widens, homelessness spreads, and many more Canadian children are living in poverty today than there were two decades ago. That was when our Honourable Members of Parliament solemnly and unanimously pledged to eradicate child poverty before the dawn of a new century. Instead, the food banks are hard pressed to keep hundreds of thousands of kids from starving.

Obviously the MPs in 1989 never really intended to keep their promise to poor children and their parents. Or even make the effort. It was just another in a long list of political promises that are never intended to be honoured. The politicians know they can break their word with impunity because our political system has no mechanism to make them accountable. Politicians rarely get punished for lying, and I’m afraid the latest round of balloting will be no exception.

I used to think that the politicians’ apparent indifference to the plight of so many children was because they rarely saw a hungry child. Dining at the best restaurants and living in posh homes, they didn’t get to see the stark human misery their neglect was perpetrating. To them, child poverty was just a statistical problem.

If only, I used to think, these million-and-a-half deprived children could be paraded one by one down the centre isle of the House of Commons, so that the MPs could actually see and hear them, surely they would be moved to live up to their poverty-ending promise. Of course, it would take a year or more for all these children to file past our elected representatives; but I thought that even the most callous and uncaring MP would break down after the first few weeks and decide that these small victims deserved more than a pretension of concern.

Now, of course, I know better. I know that our MPs will never keep their pledge to eliminate child poverty, or even to save many more thousands of children from the same fate. It’s not that they’re all heartless. Many of them no doubt deplore the destitution of so many of our youth, and sincerely wish they could do something to help them. But they can’t. The real rulers of Canada—their corporate masters—won’t let them.

Consider, if you will, the policies that would have to be undertaken to provide poor children—and necessarily their parents—with a decent standard of living.

Enough additional jobs would have to be created to bring the unemployment rate down to at least 4%.
Unemployment insurance benefits and coverage would have to be restored to their more generous 1975 levels.
Welfare rates would have to be doubled, and so would the minimum wage.
Working mothers would have to be given accessible and affordable child care.
Social programs would have to be raised back to their pre-cutbacks standards.

These are all policies, however, to which the CEOs of the largest corporations—and the major investors in those firms--are adamantly opposed. The business executives, the bankers, the shareholders and money-lenders—the wealthy and powerful élite who own and run the country—will never permit the politicians and political parties they control to take such initiatives.

And why not? The answer is simple: for the poor to get more, the rich would have to take less. And the rich have no intention of giving up any part of their disproportionately huge incomes. On the contrary, they are bent on increasing their share of the national output. Their greed has no limits.

Most of the laws and programs introduced by Canadian governments over the past 20 years—free trade, deregulation, business tax cuts, etc.—have had this underlying purpose: to make the rich and powerful more rich and powerful.

The voters, of course, have to be persuaded otherwise, but this has been relatively easy to do. Most people will believe whatever excuse they’re given for government policies that hurt them, whether it be an economic recession, government debt, international competitiveness, globalization, the war on terror, or a coffee crop failure in Brazil. The notion that such harmful policies are unnecessary and deliberate never occurs to them.

And so the CEOs, with the help of their minions in the legislatures and their apologists in the media and academe, continue to amass more wealth at the expense of the poor—and increasingly at the expense of the middle class, as well.

The combined wealth of the richest 50 Canadians—all multi-millionaires, of course—now tops $50 billion. Assuming that the annual income of the average poor family of four is no more than $30,000, this means that the 50 Canadians at the top of the income pyramid have as much money as 1,600,000 low-income Canadian households.

To understand the business élite’s voracious appetite for wealth, you have to be aware that, in an unfettered market-driven economy, the wealthier you are, the more power and influence you wield. So a mere million dollars is no longer adequate. Neither is $100 million or even $500 million. Multi-millionaires are now a dime a dozen. To be really powerful these days, you have to become a billionaire. Nothing short of a thousand million will suffice. With that much lucre, you can really be a global mover and shaker.

This is still an exclusive club, with less than a dozen Canadians or Canadian families so far having been able to break into it. You’ve heard about them: Ken Thomson, the Irvings and McCains, the Bronfmans, the Eatons, the Demarais clan, Ted Rogers, Galen Weston.

The business leaders and plutocrats who have to get by with less than a billion are understandably peeved—and all the more determined to climb into the ranks of the financially exalted. And they now have the means to do so. They have free trade. They have deregulation. They have privatization. They have the freedom to underpay their workers, exploit cheap foreign immigrant labour, and outsource work to low-wage Third World countries. They have compliant governments to do their bidding and well-funded think-tanks to justify their avarice. They have a mass media propaganda machine to brainwash the population.

The persistence of poverty and homelessness in Canada can only be understood in the context of a prevailing economic system in which such social ills are solidly embedded. That’s the stark reality of the society in which we now live—a reality that makes a farce of any political promise to eradicate or even alleviate poverty in Canada. To create a just society would require, first and foremost, a much more equitable distribution of wealth; and that’s something our corporate rulers will never willingly permit.

Perhaps the time will come when we’ll have an election in which inequality, poverty and social injustice will be the central issues. Perhaps from such an election a government will emerge that will govern in the public interest and not the corporate interest.

But this election in the fall of 2008 clearly is not it.

Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor.