If you're wondering why there's more focus on income inequality than there was 10 years ago, give some of the credit to authors.
In the United States, University of California, Berkeley professor Robert Reich, has written three terrific books in recent years: Saving Capitalism, Aftershock, and Beyond Outrage. With his deep historical insights and imaginative policy prescriptions, Reich laid the intellectual foundation for the Bernie Sanders campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
A Canadian duo, journalist Linda McQuaig and Osgoode Hall law professor Neil Brooks, added a Canadian perspective with their brilliant 2010 book, The Trouble With Billionaires: How the Super-Rich Hijacked the World and How We Can Take It Back. It showed how tycoons like Bill Gates have enhanced their wealth enormously by piggy-backing on the ideas of others.
Two years later came the release of Chrystia Freeland's Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. Freeland later became a Liberal MP and her book undoubtedly influenced her government's decision to jack up personal income taxes for high-income earners and reduce personal income taxes for the middle class.
In the United Kingdom, Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett coauthored The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. Released in 2009, it demonstrated that health, education, obesity, violence, and other measures were worse even for the rich in countries with greater inequality.
French economist Thomas Piketty's 696-page Capital in the Twenty-First Century also enhanced people's understanding about income inequality. It was an unexpected bestseller in 2014.
You can add a B.C. author to this list. Andrew MacLeod's A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing), is a stellar examination of how Canada's westernmost province has become a Canadian bastion of class differences.
MacLeod, the legislature bureau chief for the Tyee, was recently named winner of the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature. He'll pick up his prize and give an accceptance speech at the Vancouver Public Library on June 29. (Jeanette Armstrong, winner of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award, will also speak at the library that evening.)
Like the other titles mentioned above, A Better Place on Earth offers a bounty of data to show how many folks are being left behind as the rich get richer. It also includes a nuanced look at why poverty is more prevalent among women, indigenous people, and refugees.
For readers, the inescapable conclusion is that B.C. has the greatest level of inequality in Canada. Fully half of the kids in B.C. households headed by a single parent are living in poverty, according to the book.
It also reports that from 1999 to 2012, the poorest 10 percent of British Columbians went even deeper into the red. Their net worth fell from -$1,400 to -$10,700. The richest 10 percent of British Columbians, on the other hand, held 56.2 percent of the wealth in 2012.
Stories bring poverty to light
What makes MacLeod's book so readable are stories of everyday British Columbians coping with poverty. Through these tales, the author shows how rules imposed on them are so much harsher than those faced by more privileged members of society.
There's Victoria resident Ted Hawryluk, whom MacLeod reports has been on a waiting list for social housing for 18 years. Hawryluk has a dog, smokes, and already has a roof over his head, which put him at the back of the line. After paying his rent and utility bills from his $906 monthly provincial disability-assistance, he has about $56 left to live.
At the root of the problem is the social-assistance allowance for housing within that $906 disability envelope: at $375 per month, it doesn't come close to matching his rent. MacLeod tells readers that the shelter maximum for single people on disability assistance has remained frozen at $375 per month since 1998.
Hawryluk is well aware that provincial and federal politicians receive far more generous housing allowances.
"The government can come up with a whole lot of money for people who are already rich, but when it comes to the actual poor they're not even pegging us at inflation," Hawryluk tells MacLeod.
Then there's former long-haul truck driver Rochelle Berman, who paid taxes for three decades before becoming disabled. MacLeod reports that she was waking up with migraine headaches and suffering depression and stomach problems because she couldn't make ends meet on the monthly provincial disability payments of $906.
MacLeod contrasts that with the income of the minister responsible for social development at the time, Vancouver-Langara Liberal MLA Moira Stilwell. MacLeod reports in his book that Stilwell, a doctor, "refused requests for raises to assistance rates".
MacLeod points out that taking this post, Stilwell strongly advocated for Canadian medical students studying abroad. As a minister of state, she even wrote a report objecting to barriers to these students obtaining residency positions in Canada.
Stilwell's son happened to be one of those Canadian medical students who was educated abroad. According to MacLeod, this was "something she had failed to mention in interviews with me on the subject or to minister [Mike] de Jong when she was working on the report for him". (On June 17, Stilwell announced that she won't seek reelection next year.)
A Better Place on Earth also outlines strict rules around social assistance and the multitude of reasons why people have stopped receiving benefits. Shortly afterward, MacLeod launches into a detailed dissertation on lavish spending on food and drinks by a provincial Crown corporation, B.C. Hydro, at Union of B.C. Municipalities conventions.
"Most mayors and councillors, and the other convention attendees, aren't exactly the 1 percent," MacLeod acknowledges in his book, "but by and large they're doing okay and it remains unclear to me why the public should be buying them gourmet treats."
B.C.'s inequality ranks worse than other provinces
Now for more numbers. A Better Place on Earth points out that in 2012, B.C. had the highest median net worth for "family units" of all provinces in Canada at $344,000, according to Statistics Canada.
Those B.C. families in the bottom 20 percent had a median net worth of just $1,100 in 2012. This was lower than their median net worth in 1999, which means they're falling even further behind.
The top 60 percent, on the other hand, saw their net worth rise by 60 percent over the same period, MacLeod reports. And the top 20 percent of B.C. family units had a net worth of about $1.4 million in 2012.
In addition, McLeod cites TD research showing that for more than a decade leading up to 2010, B.C. had the highest debt-to-income ratio, highest debt-service costs, greatest sensitivity to rising interest rates, and lowest average savings rate.
The bank pointed out that B.C. was the only province in the negative with a savings rate, reaching -4.2 percent in 2010, compared to a national average of 3.9 percent. Is it any wonder that we saw a proliferation of payday loan companies and a sharp rise in homelessness in the Lower Mainland during the first decade of the 21st century?
Like other books on inequality mentioned above, MacLeod suggests many policy proposals near the end. They include such things as increasing the minimum wage, taxing 100 percent of capital gains, introducing a maximum wage and an inheritance tax, improving pensions, offering more support for refugees, raising welfare rates, spreading work around, and adopting a provincial antipoverty strategy.
But then there's a kicker: MacLeod adds a transcript of a legislative debate between NDP MLA Michelle Mungall and Premier Christy Clark, which took place on April 9, 2014.
Mungall mentioned six B.C. single mothers with disabilities whose child-support payments were being clawed back by the government. The moms were all in the gallery on that day watching the proceedings. And the NDP MLA wanted the premier to explain how taking away these child-support payments was putting their families first.
Clark's sidestepped the question by responding that the government is "very much focused on growing the economy as a way to make sure that we look after people in the province for the long term". The premier also mentioned that her government had raised the minimum wage three times and has "one of the lowest overall tax levels".
Mungall fired back, asking again why the government wouldn't end the clawback.
Clark's response was that Canada is a rich country and that B.C. is a rich province, but the "sad fact" is that not everyone is able to "fully participate in that wealth". It was pretty lame defence after all the material MacLeod had provided leading up to that point.
Two months before MacLeod's book was scheduled to be released, the B.C. government finally decided to end the clawback of child-support payments from single parents on social assistance. It may be a coincidence. But you can also be sure that some senior government officials were aware of A Better Place on Earth's pending publication.
The fact is that B.C. is ruled by a premier, a deputy premier (Rich Coleman), and a finance minister (de Jong) who are ideologically committed to austerity regardless of the economic climate. As MacLeod documents, this is increasing hardship for hundreds of thousands of poor British Columbians at the same time it's helping the wealthy become even richer.
The title, A Better Place on Earth, riffs on a B.C. Liberal government ad campaign called "The Best Place on Earth", which promoted the province in advance of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Books are important tools to help frame the public debate, raise awareness, and ultimately bring about change in the world. Especially really good books like A Better Place on Earth. It belongs on any bookshelf beside the works of Robert Reich and Linda McQuaig.