Groups want more done to address the vast gulf between rich and poor
By Suzy Thompson, Fast Forward WeeklyOn February 20, the Sheldon Chumir Foundation and the Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative held a forum to discuss income inequality in the city. Calgary has the country’s widest income gap — nowhere else in Canada is the amount of money that separates the top from the bottom so vast. What, if anything, should be done to close that gap is a matter of debate.Research from the Fraser Institute supports the notion that as long as those at the bottom continue to have the same basic economic freedoms as everyone else, then the existence of a super-rich minority is not an issue. The Institute also questions Statistics Canada’s findings on the wealth gap in the country, claiming an individual’s reported income is only one type of wealth, and pointing out that since the 1960s, consumption has grown roughly 800 per cent across the entire spectrum of income classes.Also, “the relatively poor… have been acquiring key household facilities at a faster pace than the relatively rich…. This is certainly evidence against a growing gap in material well-being,” says the Fraser Institute’s 2009 report The Economic Well-Being of Canadians. Those arguments don’t register with public interest and poverty advocacy groups.“I’m not here ever to say that people who are doing very well should not do well. It has to do with making sure our society balances out the inequities and gives everybody an opportunity to benefit from living in a healthy society,” says Bill Moore-Kilgannon of Public Interest Alberta. “A lot of research around the world shows… the greater the income gap, the greater it impacts on all of us, not just those in poverty.”Moore-Kilgannon says the statistical averages quoted in the media about Alberta’s economic growth, average costs and average incomes mask problems because those averages are skewed by the success of a very few.For example, throughout 2012, the average wage in Alberta hovered around $1,100 per week, though few people make that much, and a very few make many times more. Moore-Kilgannon says we should forget the average. “If we looked at average temperatures in Alberta we could get rid of winter,” he says.He says policy-makers have to consider the statistics that reveal problems with an income gap, including reports that say despite Alberta’s overall wealth, 91,000 of its children live below the low-income cut-off, or that 25 per cent of employed Albertans earn less than $15 an hour.“ data shows the sheer number of families struggling to pay the rent and feed the kids is very significant for such a wealthy province. And so the question is not how many poor people is it acceptable to have, the question is what can we as a society be doing to fulfil the promise that Premier Redford made on April 11 as part of the election campaign, where she promised to eliminate child poverty in Alberta in five years?” says Moore-Kilgannon.“The thing about poverty and wealth in Calgary is it’s increasingly ghettoized as well,” adds Kelly Ernst, the Sheldon Chumir Foundation’s senior program director. “The wealthy in Calgary don’t have to come across the people living in poverty, and the people living in poverty don’t hang out in the rich neighbourhoods…. The mainstream media in Calgary really like to glorify the ideal of wealth. And so when you see people being interviewed about the economy, when you see people being interviewed about what’s it like to be a Calgarian, we go to the ideal first…. When people then migrate here, some of them get quite a big shock as to what it’s like to live here; what the expenses truly are; what they can afford.”Derek Cook, the executive director of the Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative, says there was debate at the recent forum, and much of it focused on how to address poverty and close the gap.“There has been a lot of talk about the value of paying a living wage, and where living wages have been provided we see that companies actually do better. And companies that provide quality employment with benefits and security and living wages, they tend to outperform those that don’t. So I think it’s possible to provide a reasonable standard of living for Calgarians without necessarily compromising the viability of a business,” says Cook. He points out that a survey conducted by the Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative in 2006 and again in 2009 found that 40 per cent of Calgarians were worried about not being able to afford housing, and another 20 per cent were afraid they couldn’t even pay for food."There was a time in the 1970s where Canada had virtually no food banks,” says Ernst. “Our economic policies changed and we’ve since had an explosion of food banks open up across the country and we now have, I believe it’s nearly a million people every month in Canada going to a food bank. That’s abysmal.” He also supports serious consideration of a living wage to resolve poverty and inequality.“We could close all of those food banks if we actually ensured the people going to all of those food banks had sufficient income,” Ernst says. “If you don’t actually look at income first, as an income-first model, you’re never going to really address the core problem of poverty…. foolish to make the assumption that we can throw services at people and that’s going to eliminate poverty.”Moore-Kilgannon agrees. “Relying on the food banks is not a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy,” he says. However, he supports social services, saying they do lift people out of poverty when those services receive consistent government support. He is disappointed at government’s seemingly consistent willingness to cut aid programs in hard times, citing the province’s recent decision to end the Summer Temporary Employment Program.He says he believes social supports and progressive taxes will go a long way, and that, more than ever, there is a greater willingness in Alberta to create an equal society.“The sort of pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps type attitude is there but it’s a real tiny minority,” he says. “I think most Albertans, right across the political spectrum, want to live in a province where everyone benefits from our wonderful resources and economy.”By Suzy Thompson, Fast Forward WeeklyThis article was published in Fast Forward Weekly on February 27, 2013. Read more on the Fast Forward Weekly website.