Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Rich Get Richer, Poor Get Poorer

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, February 1 / 16

Zack Gross

Our new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, made quite a splash recently in Davos, Switzerland meeting with the global business and political elite at the World Economic Forum.  The international development non-governmental agency Oxfam used this annual event as a backdrop to releasing its latest look at global poverty, announcing that the world’s 62 richest people now own as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people on our planet (half its population).

 Not only is that quite an alarming figure, but when put on a timeline, the trend is definitely toward more wealth being concentrated in fewer hands every year.  In 2010, 388 people controlled that amount of wealth and in 2015, 80 did – and now it is 62.

Oxfam acknowledged, in its study, that the number of people living in extreme poverty in our world has also declined but argues that if the concentration of wealth in so few hands had been spread out, hundreds of millions more people could have exited “extreme poverty”, which means earning US$1.25 per day or less.

The Oxfam report offers many more statistics than can be outlined here, but one example they use is the pay for US CEOs.  Since 1978, Chief Executive Officers have seen their pay increase by approximately 1000% while the typical US worker’s wage has increased by just 11%.  Since 2009, CEO pay has increased by about 54%, while ordinary wages have remained stagnant.

These global trends are mirrored by Canadian reality.  There are five Canadians at the top of our society who have the same wealth as the bottom 30% - 11 million people!  Meanwhile, the poorest 10% of Canadians have had a wage increase on average over the past 25 years of only $2.30 per day. 

Oxfam cites tax havens as the tool most used by our elite to maximize their financial position.  It estimates that $7.6 trillion sits offshore and tax free.  Collecting taxes on these funds would bring $190 billion into government programming.  The new Government has promised tax relief for the middle class and a tax hike on the rich but, Oxfam asks, what about those in our country who are barely getting by?

Says Oxfam’s Canadian Director, “For a Prime Minister who has championed women’s equality, it should be a no-brainer to use the money otherwise lost in tax havens to provide more and better health care, education and childcare, which benefits the poor and particularly women.”

Another issue that affects women and the poor is the wage gap and Oxfam encourages our government to deal with the fact that Canadian women are still paid $8,000 less than men for the same job.  And governments, they say, need to look at what a “living wage” would be in each province rather than having a “minimum wage
. ” That gap in some provinces may be as much as $4 per hour!

There is also a growing wage gap between those able to get their high school diploma or post-secondary education and training and those who drop out.  It is most often the poor who drop out, fueling the multi-generational cycle of poverty.  Being poor, lacking proper nutrition, not being able to afford community participation, lacking books, the young and poor end up in long-term menial labour, McJobs and short-term positions, never having enough money to save, using food banks more and more, and economical disenfranchised.
As one might expect, there has been an outcry of criticism about Oxfam’s study.  While it is a snapshot of world economics, the report supports certain political ideologies and offends others.  The response of one business editor, in an article in the New Yorker magazine, was that Oxfam’s critics may have a point that some of their research is flawed, but that the general point is still true, that the richer are getting richer and the poor, relatively speaking, are getting poorer.

As well, says the New Yorker, this trend indicates that a small – and getting smaller – group of people have power over the rest of us concentrated in their hands.  They are the ones who have the most goods, travel the most, have the best access to education and health care, and so on, but they are also the people who can participate in the World Economic Forum and defend their position, and who can hire the best tax lawyers to maintain their position to the detriment of the rest of us.

The other side of the coin to the World Economic Forum is the World Social Forum, a gathering of thousands of activists from around the globe.  The next one is scheduled for Montreal next August 9th to 14th in Montreal.  One hopes that Justin Trudeau will be there to listen and learn, and continue to renew Canada’s commitment to social development locally and globally.

Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of the Marquis Project in Brandon.

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