Q How did you come to pursue poverty specifically as an issue?
A For three years after my undergraduate degree in international business, I volunteered with the Mennonite Central Committee in Laos, in South East Asia, at a vocational training centre they had set up. There, I worked as a business management adviser, teaching accounting and helping women with disabilities. I thought I had a lot to teach them, but I realized early on that I was the one who had a lot to learn. Laos is poor, but in many ways it is richer than we are. This experience changed my perspective on everything. One of the most important things that I came to understand over those three years was that poverty and income inequality are determined by the type of economic system we set up. That choice lies with us. That’s why I came back home and studied economics.
Q How dire is economic inequality today?
A That’s a good question, but it’s also a loaded question. In some ways, it’s the worst it has been since the Great Depression of the 1930s, but we also have a higher standard of living, whether we are at the top or at the bottom. There is higher inequality in the United States, India and China. We can talk about how bad it is, or we could focus on how much better it could be. If you look at countries like Iceland or Denmark, levels of inequality are much lower. I would suggest that the real questions we need to ask are: “What kind of society do we want, and what do we need to do to get it?”
Q Why should we care about this topic and its implications?
A Let me try to answer that from the perspective of the [wealthiest] one percent. There are two reasons. Research is showing that economic inequality is a drag on economic growth. The more unequal the economy, the less the economy grows as a whole. Secondly, high levels of inequality negatively affect a person’s well-being, whether they are at the top or at the bottom of the economic pyramid. More inequality means higher rates of mental illness, teen pregnancies and crime. The impact of this affects everyone throughout a society.
Q It’s like the Canadian winter: we complain about it but that doesn’t change anything. What can we, as a society, do?
A That’s a very complicated question. You used the analogy of the Canadian winter. We prepare for winter: we get coats and boots to protect ourselves against the cold. And we can do things to protect ourselves against rising inequality. There is a role for every sector in society to play in this. Let’s take our government. Our tax base has eroded over time; taxes have been cut for individuals and corporations, as well as the reduction of consumption taxes, which leads to less money to spend on the services we actually need. There is no evidence that cutting taxes leads to economic growth.
Q But what I have heard from businesses is that if we raise corporate taxes they will simply move to a lower tax jurisdiction.
A Well, the evidence is showing that businesses don’t actually move. It’s really too expensive for them to do that, regardless of the rhetoric. In the case of Ontario, where I live, we already have one of the lowest corporate tax rates not only in Canada but when compared to the northeastern United States as well. Governments need to take their tax revenue and spend it on those things that we all need or that the lowest income people need. The social assistance rates in Ontario are $686 per month for a single person. How can someone live on that, let alone have the energy or capacity to work on getting a job? We need to spend money on better health care and transit. We need to lower tuition rates so students don’t have to graduate with large debts. We also need to raise the minimum wage. Both Alberta and New York are raising it to $15 an hour; that should happen across our country. Our governments also need to ask if they are contributing to the problem by outsourcing the jobs they control and if, as a result, they are driving lower wages and more precarious employment. But they need the mandate to create the economic ground rules that benefit everyone, and that’s where all of us come in.
Q What can I, as an individual, do?
A Start the conversations. One person can start a movement and then others will join. Don’t underestimate the power of voting with your wallet. Buy Fair Trade, or purchase from a B Corp company — a designation of companies that want to not only do well financially for their shareholders, but also do well for the communities in which they do business. Or purchase from a Living Wage Network company — a movement that’s growing by leaps and bounds across the country. They are advocating that “families should earn an income sufficient for them to pay for the basic necessities of life, so they can live with dignity and participate as active citizens in our society.” This allows families to do the simple things, like being able to buy birthday gifts or buy a friend a cup of coffee. Business owners, which is my family’s background, don’t have to wait for government. They can choose the starting wage for their employees; they can make sure they implement fair scheduling so people can actually plan their lives. There are different models that businesses can choose to implement. Businesses compete with each other for customers. So why not a race to the top, rather than to the bottom? As a millennial, I experienced for myself the impact of precarious employment and the challenges of landing a permanent job with benefits. We need to do better for everyone’s sake.
Q What can the church do to assist or participate in improving Canada’s fiscal health?
A I’m a person of faith. Spirituality and faith are not only a part of my life, but my daily routine. It was while growing up in the Mennonite church that I developed my concern for people who live in poverty. As churches, we need to pursue a two-tracked process. Giving to a foodbank may help us feel good, but we need to design a nation and an economy without foodbanks. Right now 15 percent of foodbank users have one family member working. That should appall us. Charity is random, justice is not, and we need both. Churches need to be places of advocacy and action to create the world we need. Reducing income inequality is possible; we have all the tools in the toolbox that we need to make it happen. The piece that seems to be missing is political will. If we care about eliminating poverty, if we care about reducing income inequality, then we must tell our politicians to do something about it. And we must be willing to pay for the solutions that will do the trick.
This interview has been condensed and edited.