Minding the gap: Armine Yalnizyan on how to fix an unfair economy
Armine Yalnizyan has spent her career examining the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us in Canada. As a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, she has charted how the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting by with even less, and the middle are peddling harder to stay in place. Her observations echo the trends that PSAC has been seeing in workplaces for years – more and more people being forced to work in a series of part-time jobs or on temporary contracts. Armine took time to speak with Our Union Voice about how public sector workers might be able to fight rollbacks of their own wages and benefits, while also improving working conditions for everyone.
You have done a lot of work on growing poverty levels in Canada. What have you seen in the last few years? And what do you think we need to know about the bigger picture in terms of who’s getting richer and who is not?
The frustrating thing about watching the growing gap in the last 30 years in Canada is that the first 20 years looks like one pattern but the last 10 years represent something completely different and far less promising, despite lots more money sloshing around.
During the first 20 years, people rose up and down roughly together – we were all in the same boat. So when a recession hit everybody would be a little bit dinged, the people at the bottom of course the most. But the recovery would come along and people would more or less move up in tandem.
That was true of the recession of the eighties and the nineties. Now we’re in a whole new ball game. After 1996, Canada experienced a stretch of economic growth unlike anything we’d seen since the 1960s. But even with really strong economic growth, the rich-poor gap grew rather than shrank, because people at the top enjoyed the majority of the benefits from this gain.
Who are hit the hardest in an unfair economy? And how will the current recession exacerbate this disparity?
Generally speaking, women are hardest hit by an unequal economy. Women always roll up their sleeves and dive into whatever work is there, because they have no choice but to support their families. Better paid, more steady work is shed during a recession, leaving behind more precarious, low-waged, non-unionized contract and part-time work. But increasingly, more people are being forced to accept difficult working conditions, in good times and bad.
This era of precarious employment is putting everyone who is not at the absolute top on the same unsteady footing. Of course the people working in temporary and contract types of jobs are the first to be laid off. And this includes a disproportionate number of people who are racialized, Aboriginal, or disabled. But going forward, the long-term trend is a widespread expansion of precarious employment. That’s where the labour market is heading.
At PSAC we often talk about public service as the great equalizer. How do you see public services playing into Canada’s recovery from this recession?
Well, just stop and think about what this recession has done. It has slashed exports, and business investments have ground to a halt. There’s been a slowdown in consumer demand. All that is left to prevent the economy from completely plummeting is government expenditures. And government expenditures primarily flow into the community as wages to people that are providing the services. So public services are the only thing, really, that is saving our bacon right now.
Just over a quarter of federal expenditures flow to individuals as transfers split between employment insurance, old-age security programs and child-tax benefits. But most of the rest of the spending goes to provide services to people. With the kind of slow growth and lots of downward pressure on wages that we are experiencing now, one way to soften the blow is to offset the cost of the basics, making sure that needed infrastructure and services are in good shape and widely accessible. By basics I mean access to affordable housing and clean water, health care and education, including early learning, child care and transit. That stretches everybody’s pay cheque a little bit further, so people can spend and support the economy. That’s the only way businesses will gain strength and think about investing again.
So right now it is the public sector that is holding the house of cards up. If we start looking at ways of cutting back on that, we’re guaranteed a collapse.
Do you have some suggestions about how public sector workers might be able to continue their struggle while also contributing to the broader fight against poverty?
One of the messages that PSAC can put forward is the importance of stable work time and steady income. You have to know how much you’re making so you can make plans in life. If everybody’s working on short-term contracts, they might be working flat out right now but they don’t know if they will have an income in six months or in a year’s time. That’s not the way to sustainability for the rich, the poor or the middle.
Public sector jobs need to be done, period. They don’t need to be done on a contract basis, they’re not going away. So if those jobs are inevitably going to need to be done, why not have steady jobs for the people doing them, and the possibility of gaining some built-up wisdom about the work over the long haul?
The recipe for prosperity has long been to get an education, work hard. This generation of workers is better educated and working more than their predecessors a generation ago, and despite this they are falling further behind in terms of income and indebtedness. If more work and greater education is not the answer, what is?
Temporary and erratic hours of work may be the emerging new normal in the labour market if we don’t get organized to fight this attack on the last remaining power of workers – control over their working time. As your members from the Museum of Civilization and War Museum know, control over hours of work was one of the major reasons for their strike action.
Without control over hours of work it becomes difficult to raise kids, or even have kids; and it becomes challenging to get involved in civil society. Our only sanctioned social contribution is waged labour. You can’t have a thriving society if everything is about work.
How would you like to see the economy change to benefit people?
We need fewer ambulances at the bottom of the cliff and more fences at the top. A greater focus on preventing bad things from happening rather than fixing them when they go wrong will help our individual pay cheques and our collective resources go further. A focus on identifying and punishing offenders is more costly than investing in the social determinants of health and statistics show it doesn’t diminish the problems. The advantage of securing more healthy environments for people, particularly children, is that we can all grow and develop to our potential. We’ll really need to make the best of what we’ve got in the years to come, as labour market shortages become unavoidable.
Investments in better physical and human infrastructure have to be conceived as more than just an emergency stimulus measure. Before the recession even started we had a $125 billion infrastructure deficit in villages, towns and cities all across the country. We are still riding on the infrastructure built 50 years ago by our parents’ generation. They built the systems that still propel our economy, the foundation that we are finding so hard to maintain let alone extend; even though our economy is at least five times as big as the economy that built this shared wealth.
Our public needs include roads and sewers, as well as water systems, electricity grids and housing. But we also desperately need early child development as part of our foundational infrastructure, particularly if the next generation of women act essentially the same as men when it comes to the job market. There will be fewer people to not only replace retiring boomers, but fewer people with time to take care of the babies, the elderly and the physically and mentally frail, the people who always walk with us.
You can read more about Armine Yalnizyan’s work at GrowingGap.ca – an initiative of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, seeking to increase public awareness about the alarming spread of income and wealth inequality in Canada.
Date Modified : 2010/02/01