Middle class blues

It’s time to talk about income inequality

Dan Herman

While 2013 didn’t see mass protests like those catalyzed by the Occupy movement last year, perhaps this is a sign that our conversation on the economy, and issues related to income and wealth distribution within it, has matured.

The past year has seen significant attention paid, both politically and at the dinner table, to the topic of the middle-class and the growing gap between rich and poor. Such concerns stem largely from the disparity between an economy that has doubled in size over the past 30 years and comparatively small increases in incomes for middle-class Canadians. Stagnant unemployment rates and growing concerns about longer-duration youth unemployment only add to the fire.

In our local region, such concerns are amplified by on- going restructuring at BlackBerry, the departure of Schneiders Meats, and announcements regarding further closures at local manufacturers such as Knape and Vogt in Kitchener and GSW’s water heater plant in Fergus.

To be sure, such clouds shouldn’t shield us from a good deal of great local news. This includes Desire2Learn’s continued success and growth, the emergence of local upstarts such as Miovision (recently named Can- ada’s second fastest growing tech company by Deloitte) or even the rebirth of the Forsyth Shirt factory in Cambridge, which went from bankruptcy to $1 million in revenue and 60 staff back in action.

However, it’s clear that we’re living through changing economic times. The strong job market that I gradu- ated into a decade ago looked more robust than the one my students today are entering. And over the longer term, this change is even more dramatic. University of Waterloo associate professor Markus Moos’ recent work on the in- comes of young Canadians found that they earn less today than their parents did 30 years ago, despite increases in educational attainment.

This shift in economic fortunes, however, is about more than just jobs. The most recent Vital Signs report from the Kitchener-Waterloo Community Foundation sees declines in charitable donations, increasing wait lists for affordable housing and a growing gap between the rich and the poor. All of which are tied to an economy that increasingly freez- es out its lower and middle-income earners.
All this sounds rather depressing, doesn’t it?

But here’s the optimist in me: none of this is unchangeable.

Whether through increased after-tax transfers, in- creased funding for childcare and social programs, a guar- anteed income to spur entrepreneurship or a myriad of funding options for small business, there is no shortage of options on the table to craft a more just society that gives equal priority to economic and social outcomes.

So as we head into 2014, with a strong likelihood of elec- tions at all three (four in KW) levels of government over the next 18 months, let’s not keep quiet about the issues in our communities that keep us up at night. And more im- portantly, let’s not hold back on sharing our ideas about how to address them.