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Income inequality: One of the great challenges of our times

Income inequality isn't just about salaries—it's a pervasive problem with dire implications on a range of social issues, from health to the environment to education.

February 28, 2023

3-minute read

Our experts at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives have long analyzed entrenched income inequality in Canada. We make a special focus of it in this issue of the Monitor.

As Bruce Campbell, the CCPA’s former executive director, lays out in his comprehensive essay, “How the CCPA sparked a national conversation about income inequality,” the CCPA grew out of a fight for greater equality and protection of Canada’s democracy.

“From the beginning, CCPA research reports exposed the negative consequences of neoliberal policies of privatization, deregulation, austerity, shredding the safety net, free trade agreements that were accelerating corporate concentration and driving up unemployment, income and wealth inequality,” Campbell writes.

“The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has documented four decades of rising income and wealth inequality, its consequences for our society, and how to fix it. An unprecedented pyramid of profit, power, and wealth now threatens our existence as a stable and healthy democracy. Our corporate and political elites, bound by a status quo mindset, are largely inured to the danger.”

The pandemic has only exacerbated the problem.

In his Monitor editorial “Inequality makes crises worse—and there are many crises coming,” CCPA Senior Communications Specialist Jon Milton writes: “Such inequality isn’t the unfortunate byproduct of an otherwise well-functioning machine, it is a core feature of our economic and social system. That system has produced tremendous wealth for the few and misery for the many.”

A lot of the income inequality that we take for granted today became entrenched in the era of neoliberalism, from the 1980s onward. In my own article “What will it take to tackle income inequality?” I recall a moment in the late-1990s when former CCPA Senior Economist Armine Yalnizyan spoke openly about the facts of income inequality in Alberta—which compelled former Premier of Alberta Ralph Klein to cause a media firestorm by telling Yalnizyan to go back to Toronto. That’s how controversial it once was to shine a light on the unfairness of income inequality in Canada. The CCPA keeps that conversation going today. Canada was never an equal society, but our tolerance of income inequality today is, to say the least, unbecoming of a wealthy country such as ours.

As income inequality expert Lars Osberg writes in his article “75 years of income inequality,” we’ve shifted from the Keynesian era of reduced income inequality to neoliberalism, which created the conditions for some of the most pronounced income inequality in Canadian history, to a zombie phase:

“The neoliberal era should probably be divided into its Triumphalist (1981-2008) and Zombie phases since The Financial Crisis and ensuing Great Recession of 2009-2010 shattered faith in unregulated markets and the virtues of fiscal austerity,” Osberg writes. “Nonetheless, Zombie neoliberalism staggered on from 2009 to 2019.”

Design by Joss Maclennan and Jamileh Salek
Design by Joss Maclennan and Jamileh Salek

We’ve got a lot of great, original content in this issue of the Monitor, including:

Is Quebec a distinct society when it comes to inequality? By Guillaume Tremblay-Boily

“Quebec has long been perceived as a progressive province, but is that reputation deserved?” questions Guillaume Tremblay-Boily, associate researcher at the Institut de recherche et d’informations socioéconomiques (IRIS). “The province does have a number of generous social programs, the fruit of historically strong social movements. However, like the rest of Canada, Quebec remains a profoundly unequal society.”

Education: Inequality’s solution or great reinforcer? By Erika Shaker

Education is often pointed to as a solution to income inequality, but it can also reinforce the problem too. As CCPA National Office Director Erika Shaker writes: “Cuts to public education—and to social infrastructure more generally—hurt us all, especially the most vulnerable. But markets have a propensity to favour those who already know their way around Bay Street without a map.”

Indigenous Peoples continue to face deep structural inequality in Canada by Natalie Copps and Andrée Forest

Natalie Copps and Andrée Forest take a look at how laws in Canada have reinforced the inequalities and barriers that Indigenous Peoples face. Copps and Forest write:“Dispossession from our land and related law-making left us subject to colonial laws that perpetuate and promote inequality, historically and at present.”

Climate inequality defines the present; don’t let it define the future by Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood

There is a large gap between those who are responsible for climate change and those most vulnerable to it. CCPA National Office Senior Researcher Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood writes: “[N]ot only are the lowest-income and most marginalized people—both between and within countries—the least historically responsible for climate change, and not only are they the most vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate, but they are also largely being left out of efforts to transition to a cleaner economy.”

Closing the electoral gap: Canada’s glacial march towards gender equality by Katherine Scott

Gender parity in all levels of politics is a problem in Canada. Even though more women are putting their name on the ballot, they are facing numerous barriers that block them from entering politics. CCPA National Office Senior Researcher Katherine Scott writes: “Only 30.5% of the seats in the federal parliament are occupied by women—placing Canada 60th in the international rankings, down from 27th at the turn of the century.”

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