What No One Is Saying and Why: A rant on current public policy

shrug[1]Several public policy initiatives have received a lot of attention lately: a $15 an hour minimum wage, a basic livable income, free university tuition for low-income students (this one looks like it might actually happen). These initiatives seem positive; many progressives have applauded them loudly. But I, as usual, find myself in the position of the party-pooper. It seems up to me to say what no other progressive in the province is willing to say: none of these initiatives will address poverty or grow the middle class. Hear me out.

The minimum wage in Ontario has nearly doubled in the last twenty years. Has poverty shrunk significantly? No. Now I’m not suggesting we go back to a minimum wage of $6.85 an hour, certainly not. I’m not even suggesting that raising the minimum wage to $15 is a bad thing, but consider this: $15 an hour at full-time is just $21,000 a year after taxes. After rent, utilities, food, and a modest amount per month for transport that leaves just $4,200 a year —and that’s rent outside Toronto or Vancouver. And it doesn’t take much to chip away at that $4,200. The cost of a prescription or two, some new clothes, and (heaven forbid) a weekend excursion or two should do it. I think you see my point. Raising the minimum wage alone will not help people out of poverty. One look at how much the rent for a decent one-bedroom apartment has increased since the days of $6.85 an hour will show you that most of that increase has gone to line the pockets of landlords, not to helping low-income people build equity and enter the middle class. Raising the minimum wage alone will have very little long-term effect on people’s quality of life.

Consider that about 30% of all employees in Canada are employed in small businesses and small businesses have accounted for the majority of new jobs added to the economy since 2008. Of all sectors in the economy, small businesses struggle the most to response to an increased minimum wage. Sharply raising it would be one sure way to stunt that growth. And at the end of the day, your wage is in the hands of your employer. If they can’t afford to pay you to work 35 hours a week, they’ll cut you back to 24 or less. This, by the way, is why we see so many people working multiple part-time jobs.

What about a basic livable income? For the first few years it will be a real boon for some. Those who haven’t been able to make ends meet suddenly will, those who can only find low-wage part-time jobs will get a breather. But after those first few years, landlords will catch on that their tenants can pay more money. Suddenly a decent one-bedroom apartment doesn’t cost $800 a month, it costs $1000. The price of houses and condos continues to increase as well, making saving anything for a down-payment increasingly unlikely. Then, five to ten years down the road, our basic livable income isn’t livable anymore and we’re right back where we started.

What about free tuition for students from low-income families? How could I be against that? I, after all, came from a low-income family. Well, I wouldn’t be against it if I thought it would get them anything. The facts are as follows. One, the value of a bachelor’s degree has fallen dramatically over the past twenty years; today it’s worth little more than a high school diploma. Two, many of those low-income students will still need to incur debt in order to attend university; wages from a part-time job generally don’t cover rent, food, books, etc. Do the math and you quickly realize this is not a gift to low-income students, it’s a ruse encouraging them to pursue an education to nowhere so that universities can stem decreasing enrollments as a result of their flagging legitimacy.

Higher minimum wage, basic livable income, free university tuition for low-income students —when you follow the money in each of these cases none of it ends up in the pockets of the poor so they can build equity and better their standing. Ultimately, the vast majority of it ends up in the pockets of landlords and university administrators (who, by the way, get a much bigger portion of the pie than professors). And don’t forget where the money for all this comes from to begin with: us. The province plans to pay for these measures through tax, and not higher tax on the wealthy, not higher tax on corporations, nothing as innovative as a carbon tax or aggregate tax, just general income tax that we all pay. So, in the end, the working poor end up paying for the illusion that deceives them into thinking that their government cares about addressing their plight.  They look at their surroundings, scratch their heads, and wonder why they aren’t getting ahead.

Now why do I feel as though I’m the only progressive pointing out this charade? I think there are three reasons. One, criticisms like these don’t get headlines or fit inside tweets; no one likes putting ink and effort into what isn’t likely to be read. Except me, I’m just weird. Two, after thirty-plus years of unrelenting austerity in this province, progressives will applaud anything that even looks progressive, even if it actually isn’t. They reason that maybe —just maybe— if we take this hit and don’t say anything it will mean something genuinely progressive in the near future. Oh, and if that last point sounds shockingly like an abusive relationship dynamic, that’s because it is. And three, our so-called progressive politicians and political parties in Ontario are ideologically bankrupt.

What do I mean by ideologically bankrupt? Allow me to demonstrate. Below are some progressive measures that actually would combat poverty and grow the middle class. You haven’t heard any of these ideas from our allegedly progressive political parties recently, at least not publically or as part of their platforms. I’ll leave you to guess why. Here they are:

  • Expand OHIP coverage to include an annual amount for basic dental, eye glasses, and prescription medications.
  • Reduce interest on all existing student loans to a 1% annually-compounded rate and allow payments to be as low as $100 a month.
  • Build 250,000 units of quality, public housing all around Ontario, concentrated in areas where the real estate market is the most inaccessible. And finance the developments in ways that will allow the working poor to build equity while they make monthly payments. In addition to solving the homelessness problem this single measure would generate tens of thousands of jobs, improve the quality and price of rental housing, and stabilize the housing market by slowing the rise of house prices but also buffering them against a crash. Then, if needed, build 250,000 more.
  • Reform the Landlord-Tenant Act so that it is less in favor of landlords and include some form of rent control.
  • Repatriate Hydro One and incorporate it as an arm’s-length non-profit entity reporting to the Province. In other words, get our electricity provider out of the profit-making game.
  • Begin meaningful education reform so that students actually get something of value from their primary and secondary educations. Move from a teacher-centered education system to a student-centered one.
  • Establish a contribution-matching, no-risk public pension fund for low and medium income earners in Ontario and make retirement at 60 available with no penalty.
  • Allow income-splitting for couples with one or two children under five years of age so that one parent can stay home and raise the kids, no daycare required.

If the above measures are taken in combination with a higher minimum wage and a basic livable income, then we will see poverty reduced and growth in the middle class. I know what you’re thinking now. How will all this be paid for? Fear not, those solutions are relatively simple as well:

  • Introduce significant carbon and aggregate taxes and dump every penny into making public transit a superior option to owning one’s own car.
  • Raise the corporate tax rate back to something reasonable. Currently, Ontario’s corporate tax rate is the second lowest in North America (the lowest is Texas). We should at least be on par with Quebec and New York State.
  • Cancel all corporate welfare. All of it. If a car company fails, allow it to fail. Instead of being there with bailouts for our corporations, be there with a solid social security net for the employees to help them retrain and pay their bills while they find new jobs in industries that are actually viable.
  • Extend sales tax to stock market transactions. If I have to pay 13% tax on a pair of socks, there’s no reason why an investment bank can’t pay 1% on its stock market transactions. This would also act as a buffer against uncontrolled market speculation.
  • Introduce marginal income tax brackets so that income well above subsistence is taxed at suitably higher rates. Simultaneously, lower the tax rate on the lowest income bracket to 10%.

Taken together these measures may actually generate a surplus of revenue.

You may notice at this point that none of my suggestions involve herding more people through colleges and universities. Why? Because at the end of the day we still want people to pour our coffee, clean our floors, organize our department stores, landscape our cities, cook our food, and a whole host of other tasks that aren’t glamorous but are still important. Why shouldn’t the people doing this good, honest work be able to own their own homes and leave something for their children? Forty years ago, they could. There’s no good reason why that can’t be the case again. It’s certainly a better option for our young people than forcing them to spent four-plus years at university when they don’t want or need to be there.

Let post-secondary enrollment decline. It’s been too high for years. Only 1 in 5 jobs in our economy actually requires a post-secondary degree and yet 1 in 3 students who graduate high school in this province go on to pursue one. Allowing post-secondary enrollment to fall to where it naturally should be will only mean smaller class sizes for those who genuinely need to be there and less money for administrative paper-pushers and nonsense programs (degree in Outdoor Recreation, anyone?).

I hope I’ve been able to demonstrate an important but simple point here. Fighting poverty is less about how much money people have coming in and more about how much they have left once their basic needs are met. Any policy that leaves the average, single, working class person with little or no money left at the end of the month doesn’t combat the growth of the working poor, it sustains and encourages it.

And there’s the sucker punch at the end of the story —the reason why no one in power is talking about anything in this article: the working poor are not supposed to get ahead. They’re supposed to keep counting their blessings, going to work, and running on their hamster wheels while their landlords buy up more property and rent it back to them at ever inflating prices, the dream of ever owning their own homes and raising a family always just out of reach. And that is the way it shall be. Unless, of course, we change it.

“The Easiest Thing in the World”

Maria was nervous. Having been a single mother from the age of twenty, it was a condition she was well acquainted with. After she landed a good administrative job at the local university, things became blessedly easier for her and Nora, her only child. But in this country in this day and age, every step forward meant an additional worry of falling back. And Nora was about to take one of those steps.

Alone in the office lunchroom, Maria sat twirling her long, black hair around one finger, picking at the boxed salad she brought from home with the other hand, moving croutons around. A typical Thunder Bay winter roared just outside the window and Maria sipped thoughtfully at her hot cocoa. Nora was on her mind —or, more specifically, Nora’s new boyfriend.

Nora had been seeing him for a few months now, but Maria had yet to exchange as much as a “Hello” with the young man. She’d seen him pick Nora up from the house a few times, but she always ran out to meet him, he never came inside.

The glimpses she’d stolen of him, from between cracks in curtains, all suggested that Cory was the average sixteen-year-old. That is to say, lanky and long-haired with a blank expression on his face, an expression that seemed to encapsulate everything about him; Cory was a mystery every bit as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa’s smile. Without the smile. And can you trust a boy who doesn’t smile?

Maria stabbed a cherry tomato and stopped chewing her lower lip just long enough to eat it. Of course she had asked Nora about him, about where they went, what they did, and so on, feigning idle curiosity. But under the placid expression on her face Maria was as ravenous for answers and details as a starving dog before dinner time.

Weeks ago Maria recalled asking over dinner, “So what do his parents do?”

“Um… I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? But you’ve been seeing him for weeks now. Haven’t you asked?”

“No.”

“Well, don’t you want to know?”

“Why? I’m not dating his parents, I’m dating him.”

Maria regrouped, chagrined at being a bit superficial, and tried again: “Does he have any brothers or sisters?”

“One older brother.”

“And… what’s he like?”

“I don’t know. He doesn’t live at home. I’ve never met him.”

And so it went. Every time Maria tried initiating a conversation about the boy, it never got off the ground. As the weeks and months rolled by, Maria couldn’t help painting different pictures of Cory in her mind. And with very little in the way of facts to go on, her imagination had been working overtime. The top three contestants on “Who is Cory?” looked like this:

—a wrist-slashing punk rocker with an eating disorder, absentee parents, a drug addiction, two dozen ghastly tattoos and piercings, and the head of the missing high school basketball team captain in a bowling bag under his bed.

—an over-achieving robot of a boy being driven by helicopter parents to get straight As and enroll in every club, association, and council that his school had to offer ahead of becoming pre-med at the country’s top university.

—a quiet, sensitive, haiku-writing vegan who hates meat, doesn’t eat anything that casts a shadow, and has plans to become a journalist after high school but will end up a starving artist working part-time in a bookstore.

Maria knew which one she preferred, of course, but also that not one of these guesses was likely to be accurate. She sighed and finished her salad. Soon enough her imagination could rest. Cory was coming over for dinner next week.

“Hey, Maria!”

Maria looked up. Sandy from accounting came in, smiling as always, and took the seat across from her.

“Hi, Sandy.”

“How’s it going?”

“Oh… alright, I suppose.”

“Why just alright?” Sandy asked, unpacking the panini and latte she’d brought from the cafeteria two floors down.

Maria had previously shared her musings about Cory with Sandy. She leaned forward, looked up through her lashes and said, “Well, The Boyfriend is coming over for dinner next week.”

Sandy froze with her sandwich halfway to her mouth.

“Really? Finally?”

“Yup.”

“Well, that’s great! You can finally put all your worrying to rest.”

“Or have it confirmed.”

“Will worrying make a difference either way?”

“No, I… I suppose not. You know, I really don’t care what he’s like. If Nora is dating him, then he must be a decent boy —I do have some faith in my daughter’s choices.”

“You should tell her that,” Sandy interjected as she swigged her Starbucks.

“I just wish… Well, I know there’s no way to guarantee this, but I wish there was something I could do to make sure he treats her properly.”

“Oh, is that all,” Sandy said. “That’s the easiest thing in the world. I know how you can do that.”

Maria looked up in surprise.

“You do?”

“Sure, it’s simple. And I know it works. I do the same thing every time my daughter brings home a new boyfriend. All you need is a gun.”

“A what!?” Maria squeaked, her head jerking back.

“A gun,” Sandy said simply.

“I’m not going to shoot him!”

Maria knew that blonde, blue-eyed, pony-tailed Sandy hailed from rural Alberta, but this was the very first hint of red she’d ever glimpsed on her colleague’s neck.

“Of course you’re not going to shoot him.”

“Then what do I need to buy a gun for?”

“You don’t need to buy one. I’ll loan you mine.”

More red. Maria’s eyebrows knit and her mouth hung open as she watched her friend munching with incongruous calm at her lunch. She couldn’t make out whether or not Sandy was pulling her leg. Maria folded her arms, relaxed her forehead and said,

“Explain.”

“Okay,” Sandy said, putting her sandwich down and leaning over the table toward Maria, “here’s what you do. Before Cory comes over, you borrow my shotgun and mount it on the wall of your living room. And don’t worry about the legalities. I never bought ammunition for this shotgun and it doesn’t even work. It just looks big and old —that’s all you need.

“Then, when Cory comes over, you wait until it’s just you and him in the living room. You look over at the shotgun and Cory will, of course, ask about it. When he does, you point to it, stare at it, and with your best poker face you say,

“‘That gun belonged to my grandmother, Cory. Back in 1925 on the plains of Alberta she used it to bring down a rabid buffalo charging at her two young sons. She killed that beast with one shot from hundred yards. The very next thing she did was chop off that buffalo’s testicles with her butcher knife and throw them into her woodstove. Had she not done as she did, I wouldn’t be here today. After the close encounter with the buffalo she insisted that all her children know how to shoot that gun. I admire my grandmother, Cory. She was a kind and gentle woman every single day of her life, but the second something threatened her family she didn’t hesitate to pick up a gun and pull the trigger.’

“Then you channel a little Clint Eastwood, look Boyfriend in the eyes and say, ‘Know what I mean, Cory? Understand?’

“And then after little Cory is done acid washing his own skinny jeans, you’ll never have anything to worry about.”

Sandy returned to her lunch. Maria’s mouth hung open once again.

“You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Dead serious.”

“But… But Nora will tell him I lied, that the story wasn’t true.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Sandy shrugged, her mouth half full of panini. “He’ll still think you’re bat shit crazy and that achieves the same effect.”

“But… What if he is a decent boy and I scare him off?”

“So what? If you do scare him off, then you know one of two things: he wasn’t going to treat Nora well or he didn’t feel strongly enough about her to tolerate her having a slightly eccentric mother. Do you really want someone like that hanging around?”

“Well… No, I guess I don’t.”

“And if he does hang around, you automatically know two things: he genuinely cares for Nora and he isn’t going to mistreat her. Bingo!”

Maria’s eyebrows shot up like roller blinds.

“See what I mean?” Sandy said. Then with a smile she added: “Easiest thing in the world.”

Maria sat back and considered for a few moments before asking,

“So… when can I see this gun?”