How do you love your neighbour when they are 4.8 million neighbours to love?
That is the challenge today when 1 in 7 Canadians live in poverty.
Social economic inequality has been rising in the past 20 years. Globally, 85 of the planet’s richest people have accumulated wealth equal to the poorest half of humanity.
Seven in 10 people live where economic inequality has been exacerbated. The problem is not just inequality but that inequality is increasing. The top 10% of Canadians hold 50% of the wealth while the bottom 30% holds less than 1%. Since 2005 the wealthiest 10% of Canadians have seen a doubling of their incomes by $600,000 while the lowest 10% have seen a drop of $5,000.
Who are these low-income people?
Twenty-six per cent are indigenous
17.4% are children
32.4% are single parents with families
23% are people with disabilities.
These stark statistics betray the very human face of economic inequality. Inadequate income means:
People suffer a greater incidence of hospitalization for chronic obstructive pulmonary
More mental health issues
And, 1 in 10 suffer from diabetes and other health-related issues
Forty thousand Canadians – 110 each day – suffer premature death as a result.
And this is only the tip of the iceberg of the actual suffering.
So what can people of faith do to address social inequality? Charity is an obvious first step. Religious people are among the largest donors to a variety of charities such as hospitals, social agencies, food banks, and housing programs.
While charity is important, governments, businesses, and others also need to step up.
These issues are too important to be left to economists and political leaders. The policies of economic globalization (e.g. trade liberalization, cuts to social programs, tax cuts etc.) have weakened the willingness of our leaders and our collective capacity to safeguard the well-being of our fellow citizens and neighbours.
Economist Joseph Stiglitz points out that economic inequality is “hurting the economy” and is a serious risk to the economy.
Poor people should just get a job! That’s a sentiment echoed by many. Here are the stats:
51% are working but not “making a living” because of precarious work and low wages
37% of low-income families are among the “working poor”
The Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC) has noted that over the past 20 years Canada’s low-wage workforce has grown by 90%.
The New York Times recently reported, “Plenty of Work, Not Enough Pay.” (NT Times 21 October 2017)
At the same time, Corporate Canada is sitting on a $680 billion of “dead money.” Business needs to invest in full-time work at a “living wage.” More creative entrepreneurs are already doing it. (See http://www.ontariolivingwage.ca/)
The federal government has promised a national poverty reduction strategy but it keeps being delayed. Many provinces already have their own plans. It is needed now, as is the National Housing Strategy for affordable housing. Elected leaders need to hear from Canadians that addressing social inequality is a priority. Citizens for Public Justice has proposed an impressive six-point plan for what needs to be done. (see https://www.cpj.ca/)
And yes, we will have to pay for it.
Canadians need a tax system that is fair to all.
Canadians for Tax Fairness reports that we are losing $10 to $15 billion a year to “tax havens.” (see http://www.taxfairness.ca/)
That alone would sure go a long way to addressing inequality. We need a comprehensive review of our tax system. A fair and just tax system enables us to do together what we cannot do alone.
People of all faiths understand what Jesus meant when he said, “those to whom much has been given, much is required,” (Luke 12:48).
The real problem of economic inequality is that it leads to social exclusion where “least and the last” are just forgotten.
It is not a question of whether Canadians can afford to do it. It is a question of whether we are willing to help these neighbours. As former Chilean Ambassador Juan Somavia said at the World Summit on Social Development in 1995, “You cannot have secure nations full of insecure people!”
Or as I like to say, “No one is anyone without everyone else!”
People of faith need to speak this word of life.
By David Pfrimmer, Centre for Public Ethics, Waterloo Lutheran Seminary