Inequality is a world-wide problem, and it’s getting worse. But good public services help to offset it.
This is the conclusion of a very recent publication by Oxfam, which takes a hard look at growing inequality.
How unequal? The 85 richest individuals in the world have as much wealth as the poorer half of the entire global population. This is mirrored in many countries: and, while the extremes are more obvious in some of them, Canada is seeing a widening gap between rich and poor, and that gap has been growing faster than in the US. When it comes to inequality, in fact, Canada ranks a miserable 12th in a list of 17 countries like our own. Here, the top 20% bring home 39.1 per cent of the national income, and that group has increased its take over the past two decades or so: from 36.5% in 1990 to 39.1% in 2010. Canada’s cities have mirrored this trend, with increasing inequality since 1970.
The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, as the old saying goes. So what can be done about it?
The Oxfam study doesn’t claim that public services alone can solve this huge, complex problem, of course. But it does show that flourishing public services, primarily in the areas of health and education, add a premium to post-tax income, which, in the case of poorer people, can be as much as 76%. Those at the top of the income scale, on the other hand, receive only around 14%. So it’s clear that freely available public services redistribute wealth in society.
That’s no minor matter, either. It’s been estimated that this “virtual income” reduces inequality in the OECD countries, of which we are one, by 20%.
But too many countries, including our own, are on an “austerity” kick that only lowers this virtual income, and they increase inequality by so doing. In Canada, for example, our prized medicare program is now seriously threatened by changes set out in Harper’s 2014 budget. And the Oxfam report also points out that user fees and privatization, so beloved by Conservatives, effectively take from the poor and give to the rich.
Members of public service unions at all levels of government—federal, provincial/territorial, municipal—deliver health and education services. Cutbacks and “austerity” programs affect us directly, of course, but when we fight back we aren’t only fighting for ourselves. We’re standing up for all Canadians—and more so for our poorer citizens. We’re doing our bit to make this a better, fairer society. And that makes our work in the labour movement even more worthwhile.