Alex Paterson

Event Summary: Panelists get to grips with the Canadian dream

March 3, 2013

On Tuesday 26 February Canada 2020 hosted its second panel event in this year’s Canada We Want in 2020 Speaker Series. After packing the house for the kick-off event in January (Competition Matters), we turned our attention to our income inequality policy stream. February’s panel focused on Equality of opportunity: a Canada dream?

Over 350 people came out to the Château Laurier Hotel where they were treated to a lively, progressive and sometimes contentious debate about the various options for governmental action to help ensure continued economic mobility in Canada.

The panel, moderated by Canada 2020 VP of Research, Diana Carney was constructed with a view to providing clear insights into the problem of rising inequality and potentially slowing mobility. Our panelists were chosen for their ability to address the many different facets of this issue, from the global scale to the grass roots. They were:

  • Zanny Minton Beddoes, Economics Editor at The Economist
  • Dr. Miles Corak, Professor of Economics at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs
  • Carolyn Acker, Member of the Order of Canada and founder of Pathways to Education, and
  • Ron Haskins, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and former adviser on families, welfare and mobility to President George W. Bush.

To start the event, we asked ‘local hero’ Miles Corak to give a framing presentation that drew heavily from his background paper, Public policies for equality and social mobility in Canada (you can download the report here). Miles is fast emerging as one of the preeminent global experts on income inequality, social mobility, and government policies that support equal opportunity for citizens.

Central to Miles’ presentation was the so-called ‘Great Gatsby Curve’. This shows the correlation between inequality and mobility in various countries: for the most part, countries that are more unequal have less mobility.

Enter Canada, the outlier. As Miles’ data shows, a generation ago Canada had higher levels of intergenerational mobility than might have been expected given its position on the inequality continuum. Although this would appear to be an enviable position, the institutions, programs and policies that have supported stronger mobility in Canada may now be at risk with rising inequality.

Zanny Minton Beddoes – author of the well-known Economist survey True Progressivism – brought a macro perspective to the proceedings. Having spent time studying levels of inequality and the various government responses to the widening gap between the rich and the poor in countries around the world, Zanny’s thoughts on the topic were cooly rational:

“I wouldn’t want to live in a society where a child’s potential is determined by the happenstance of their location of birth. I am fine with economic inequality if it is the outcome of differentials in effort or talent, but I think most people believe society should enable talented people who work hard to succeed – this is basis of the American dream… and even if you don’t care about fairness, even if you’re not terribly egalitarian, I believe it is incredibly economically inefficient to have low levels of mobility in a society.”

Carolyn Acker noted that she approached this topic in a different way, from a community health perspective, originally, and as a front line provider of services in one of the poorest communities in Canada, Regent Park in Toronto. Carolyn placed a great deal of emphasis on the importance of early education interventions and support and expressed skepticism about the possibility of top-down, bureaucratic delivery of those interventions.

Ron Haskins stood apart on many of these issues – not in their importance, but in how to address them. Coming from an American perspective, with a focus on the policies that support families, Ron’s made it clear that “Mobility
is the issue, not inequality, unless inequality is causing less mobility.” In so stating, he outlined a vision of personal responsibility, drawn from his research at the Brookings Institution: get an education, get a decent job, and get married before having a child.

The other panelists took understandable issue with the model – not for its veracity but because they felt it overlooked the very real socioeconomic barriers that exist for individuals in troubling life situations at each one of
those gates.

Indeed one of the central fault lines that emerged throughout the course of the discussion was that of individual versus collective responsibility, with panelists sparing over the point at which services, policies and interventions cease being effective and the rest is left up to the individual. The distinction is important, as it gets to the heart of where government action is best targeted – and how the institutions we have already in place are best equipped to support a growing demographic of young Canadians who are born into a world where it is not automatically assured that they will be better off than their parents.

Still, there was universal agreement that government should play a role in ensuring societies are mobile, equal, and prosperous.

Many questions – on issues ranging from aboriginal inequality to what specific measures should be taken to address mobility concerns in the upcoming federal budget – were fielded before Diana Carney thanked our sponsors and
brought the session to a close.

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