Much of economist Krishna Pendakur’s academic work focuses on one distressing correlation between race and income: it pays to have light skin.
As codirector of Metropolis British Columbia, a policy research centre, Pendakur stays on top of immigration and diversity issues. Over the past 12 years, the SFU economics professor has done several studies indicating that visible minorities and aboriginal people generally earn less than Caucasians, even if they are Canadian-born and have the same education.
The income disparity doesn’t end at the white and nonwhite divide. Pendakur has also shown that not all white Canadians are created equal. Canadians with British and French roots earn more on average than groups of other European origins.
As an undergrad, Pendakur was interested in issues surrounding social inequity. He took up sociology at UBC because, according to him, “it seems like sociologists have a lock on the good questions.”
“They’re all interested in social stratification and inequality and poverty and how to have less of those things,” Pendakur told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “What they lacked, it seemed to me, was any way to answer these questions. So I switched to economics in graduate school. Economics, of course, has a reputation for not asking any interesting questions, but the questions that we do ask, we’re able to answer.”
He earned his master’s degree in economics at UBC and a PhD at the University of California at Berkeley.
“Economists have a shared set of methodological tools and analytical frameworks for understanding and measuring things,” Pendakur said. “It’s very handy because it means you can get answers to things, and they are answers that a broad community of people will be able to either say ”˜Oh, yeah, that makes sense,’ or they’ll say ”˜No, that’s wrong.’ ”
The SFU economist turns 42 in February, and he describes his life goals on his Web site as “old lefty”. According to him, he wants to “help the poor, redistribute income, create a society where everyone has the chance to be happy”.
“My father was a professor at UBC for 30 years, and those were his goals, so I just absorbed them,” Pendakur explained, referring to his dad, Setty, a transportation planner and the first South Asian elected as a Vancouver city councillor. “That’s what families do. They imbue you with a sense of what’s right and what should one spend time on.”
Pendakur often collaborates on research with his brother Ravi, a sociologist with the University of Ottawa’s graduate school of public and international affairs.
Their paper “The Colour of Money: Earnings Differentials Across Ethnic Groups in Canada”, which was released in 1998, has served as a foundation for their ongoing research into income disparities.
“At that time, everybody knew that in the United States, Hispanic and black people faced substantial income gaps relative to white people, but nobody is doing anything in Canada,” Pendakur related. “People had an instinct that there was some disparity between white and nonwhite people in Canada, [and] that it was primarily about immigration and that it would wear out. What we showed were that all those presuppositions were wrong. We showed that there is substantial disparity between ethnic groups in Canada, and that it’s similar in magnitude to that observed between whites, Hispanics, and blacks in the U.S., and that it’s visible in the Canadian-born population as well, and that it’s not wearing out over time.”