According to a United Way report released earlier this year, household income inequality is widespread across the country, but the gap between wealthy and poor households in Toronto is doubling the national pace. Between 1980 and 2005, income inequality in Toronto grew by 31 per cent compared to a 14 per cent increase across Canada in the same time period.
Concerns about income inequality go hand in hand with big policy challenges with which cities across Canada are grappling. Among these are important questions about affordable housing, rising precarious employment, access to education, healthcare, and the growing concentration of poverty. These issues reach far beyond the lives of individuals who live in poverty: they impact the opportunities that all Torontonians have or lack in our communities, and dictate the city’s ability to grow and prosper, both economically and socially.
There is agreement among people from all walks of life that change is necessary, and yet, as is the case with nearly all complex policy issues, there are reasoned, multi-layered, and compelling debates about the optimal next steps. With a tight federal election well underway, it was the opportune moment to gather with these realities in mind — and to hear the proposed actions of those who seek to represent University—Rosedale in Ottawa.
On Thursday October 1, the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto (SPPG), Massey College, and the Ontario College of Physicians were thrilled to receive three candidates from the riding of University—Rosedale for an all-candidates meeting on this very topic: Liberal Party of Canada candidate Chrystia Freeland, New Democratic Party candidate Jennifer Hollett, and Green Party of Canada candidate Nick Wright. Regrettably, Conservative Party of Canada candidate Karim Jivraj was not able confirm his availability.
The meeting touched on topics ranging from specific policy proposals, such as a national childcare plan and the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan, to more general statements about University—Rosedale’s representation in Ottawa and the candidates’ aspirations for their time in office, should they be elected. The debate welcomed questions from the audience throughout.
On income inequality, all candidates were in unanimous agreement that it is a topic worthy of serious attention at the federal level. All candidates present also agreed that an affordable housing strategy is crucial to approaching inequality in Toronto. They approached the issue both thoughtfully and with sincere concern.
What else did the candidates have to say, and where did they diverge? Each brought different policy and platform elements to the table throughout the discussion.
Freeland, who has published a book on the topic, went so far as to call income inequality the “most important economic issue of our time.” Among other items, she advocated for major investments in infrastructure, including in transit; progressive changes to the tax and benefits system (such as the Canada Child Benefit proposed by the Liberals); and a multi-laterally engaged federal government that acknowledges the importance of working with the provinces and foreign governments in addressing income inequality.
Hollett highlighted that the framework for discussing “income inequality” is not the framework used by every day Canadians who are living the reality of poverty; for them, she said, “it’s about jobs and services”. Among other policies, she advocated for the NDP’s proposal to reinstate the $15 minimum wage; supporting seniors by strengthening pensions and increasing the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS); and a modest increase to Canada’s corporate tax rate.
Wright stressed that the Green Party’s approach is focused on equality of opportunity rather than outcome, and on ensuring that Canada strengthens its ability to create and grow hubs of innovation and business growth. Among other items, he spoke in favor of the Green Party’s proposal to introduce a Guaranteed Annual Income and of a proposed Canadian Sustainable Generations Fund designed to spur sustainable economic growth by investing in skills training, renewables and other emerging technologies.
In his opening remarks, moderator and Massey College Senior Fellow Michael Valpy made the argument that the meaning of income inequality is not synonymous with poverty, but rather that it speaks to the “sense that we don’t have a public life in common.”
What does this “sense” mean to Canadian voters? Will newly-elected Members of Parliament from Toronto press forward on this issue upon their arrival? Stay tuned: the debate on income inequality in Toronto is here to stay.
For those interested in hearing more, the meeting was recorded in its entirety by Beyond the Headlines, and will air October 12 on CUIT 89.5.
Alexa Greig is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto. She holds a Bachelor of Social Sciences with a Specialization in Political Science and a Minor Communication from the University of Ottawa. Her main areas of policy interest include urban, education and social policy.