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Is income inequality a big problem in Canada? Or have we imported this debate from the United States, where inequality really is a big problem? (Chris Young For The Globe and Mail)
Is income inequality a big problem in Canada? Or have we imported this debate from the United States, where inequality really is a big problem? (Chris Young For The Globe and Mail)

Income inequality in Canada: What’s the problem? Add to ...

Miles Corak: It becomes doubly important that having a good start in life, getting a quality education, and being able to compete farily for the best jobs not depend overly on family background. One of the most significant downsides of higher inequality is that it has the potential to shape opportunities, giving children of rich parents disproportionate advantage. It is important that equality of opportunity be promoted in an era of high inequality, that child care, health care, and schooling continue to serve the relatively disadvantaged.

Kevin Lynch: The OECD raises the same general issue as Cowen. Technological change is essentially bifurcating work. There is a hollowing out of the middle. Part of the response is upgrading skills and education. Part of the response is more innovative firms, moving up the value added curve in every sector, and paying higher wages as a result.

William Robson: The idea that technological change multiplies opportunities for high-skilled people is pretty persuasive. Schools and postsecondary institutions that help people acquire skills are part of the answer. We know that higher education is a great personal investment for Canadians. And while I do worry that the world is getting increasingly hard for low-skill people to navigate – just think of doing personal income taxes! – as one of the less gloomy members of this panel, I'll point out that some technological advances are all about making gadgets easier for people who are not geniuses.

Anne Golden: Lots has been written on how the new digital world is creating a greater divide economically for people. To say that this trend should cause us to give up on trying to create a more equitable society, in which most people can find opportunity and succeed, is surely wrong. Enlightened policies are needed to address this challenge.

EDUCATION

Konrad Yakabuski: Is Canada’s education system up to the task, both in ensuring those in need of special attention get it, and in equipping students with 21st century skills? Or is government spending on aging baby-boomers crowding out our investment in the young?

Anne Golden: The issue is not either-or. I can’t say whether the entire education system is currently up to the task, but I can speak very personally about some very inspiring innovation in education that I see at Ryerson University. The Digital Media Zone, where young entrepreneurs incubate and grow their businesses, is achieving astonishing results.

Kevin Lynch: Dynamic economies and societies typically go hand-in-hand, and a key element in creating that dynamism, is a strong and innovative public education system. A public education system that instills creativity and entrepreneurship as well as knowledge; one that provides excellent post-secondary educations and world-class, research capacities; one that trains for skilled trades as well as for professions; and one that understands the value of experiential learning for students and for employers. We have a good public education system in Canada but we should aim higher, and make education one of Canada's core competitive strengths in a demographically challenged world.

Miles Corak: The Canadian education system, from kindergarten to college, is something to be celebrated. It is a major positive contribution to social mobility, and its accomplishments are reflected in the high standing of Canadian children in international assessments, with the achievements of the children of immigrants being particularly notable. In an era of higher inequality it is important that the rich not opt out of the system, or infuse it with a competitive ethos that stresses rank, position, and the demands of the marketplace over an ethos of community that offers all children, regardless of their socio-economic status, the opportunities to become all that they can be. Countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, where inequality is higher and social mobility lower, have a lot to learn from what Canadians have accomplished.

William Robson : Canada’s elementary and secondary schools do a good job by world standards. We also measure student achievement carefully by world standards. So we know a lot about how achievement and its correlations with socio-economic status vary from province to province, which can help us figure out how to do better. We also have strong post-secondary education. I agree that Canada's education system does a lot to equalize equality of opportunity: it's a major asset in confronting the technological and skills challenges ahead. As for government spending on older Canadians, it is already squeezing budgets, and that pressure will intensify as more baby-boomers who work for government start to collect their pensions and all boomers become heavier users of publicly funded health care. We do see evidence that younger Canadians are lagging the boomers economically, and I worry about the burden we have already placed on the next generation. Intergenerational fairness should be a key test for potential policy changes.

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