Senator Hugh Segal is the former president of the Institute for Research on Public Policy and Master-Elect of Massey College at the University of Toronto. Carolyn Hughes Tuohy is a professor emeritus of political science Political Science and Senior Fellow at the School of Public Policy and Governance, at the University of Toronto.
The most consequential decision you ever make shouldn’t have to be your choice of parents. Yet research in the U.S. – home of the American dream of self improvement – suggests that winning the birthright lottery is increasingly the path to success. As President Barack Obama put it in a speech last December, “A child born in the top twenty per cent [of the income distribution] has about a two-in-three chance of staying at or near the top. A child born into the bottom twenty per cent has a less than one-in-twenty shot at making it to the top.” It’s a problem that is drawing attention across the political spectrum.
One of the leading U.S. scholars working in this area, Harvard’s Robert Putnam, relates this breaking down of the ladder of social and economic mobility in America to differences in the “social capital” – the family, community and neighborhood linkages vital to a positive life – available to children at the top and the bottom of the income scale. Education is a key determinant of social capital gaps, but access to education is strongly related to income. Heavy dependence on local property tax bases means that the quality of schools varies markedly by neighbourhood in the United States. Growing economic insecurity means that young people at lower income levels are not encouraged to take time out of the work force to acquire post-secondary education, even though student aid may be available. Meanwhile, rates of attendance in post-secondary education in the upper half and especially the upper quarter of the income distribution have continued to increase. In turn, the level of parental education is strongly associated with many aspects of social capital – family time, involvement in extra-curricular activities in high school, attitudes of trust in others, etc – and the gap between families with highly-educated and less-educated parents in these respects is growing.
How concerned should Canadians be about a similar pattern emerging here? The way in which social capital develops in different societies has a lot to do with social and political history. So the stock of social capital in Canada is different from that in the U.S., as a result of Canadian social and political institutions and programs, attitudes toward government and other variations. Universal health insurance reduces one serious economic stressor on lower-income families. Death by violence for young people in both countries differs in part because of access to small arms. Uniquely Canadian fiscal instruments like federal/provincial equalization moderates some of the more glaring regional economic disparities. The federal/provincial child tax credit, while not perfect, does make modest progress on the challenges of child poverty. Parental leave provisions allow parents time with their children in the crucial first year of life. Equalized funding for primary and secondary education through the provincial income tax base smoothes differences in the quality of local schools. In Canada’s system of public colleges and universities, the gap in post-secondary enrolment between upper- and lower-income groups is smaller in Canada than in the U.S., and Canadian lower-income students are more likely to attend college or university than their American counterparts.
But none of this should ever justify the least threat of complacency. That these problems are less severe in Canada than the U.S. is cold comfort: the fact is that gaps in the life chances of upper- and lower-income kids exist in Canada, and we need to pay attention to the programs and institutions that have moderated these gaps in the past. Where are these programs and institutions failing or eroding? Where do they need to be updated to deal with emerging risks? Less than mediocre performance on working-age poverty means that three million Canadians live in poverty – among them hundreds of thousands of children. The poverty rate, about 9 per cent of the total population, is far worse among rural Canadians and our First Nations where, in the latter case, the examples of third-world housing, access to fresh water and isolation are far too numerous. Our city neighbourhoods across Canada are increasingly divided on on a host of social and economic dimensions.
So Mr. Putnam and others are telling us more than a tale about a neighbour’s challenges: they are giving us a warning. Sustaining equal access to constructive social capital requires openess to new approaches required by new pressures. When young people cannot build roles as productive participants in an economic mainstream that is supposed to be open, competitive and welcoming, it is not only the legitimate prospects of youth but also the mainstream itself that faces peril. Social capital is an instrument for intergenerational economic progress. It is not about equality of outcomes but about equality of opportunity – a priority the right, left and centre must preserve.
The authors participated in a program featuring a public lecture by Robert Putnam at the School of Public Policy and Governance on April 7.