Stephen Harper has cut the social safety net into tiny little pieces and flushed them down the drain.
We know this because the anti-poverty lobby and the seniors' lobby, child-care advocates, rights advocates, environmentalists, opposition parties and the Toronto Star all tell us so.
According to a Page 1 series in this week's Star, the Conservatives are dismantling social programs built over generations. "More people than ever are struggling with grim choices as they try to cope in the leaner, meaner Canada presided over by Prime Minister Stephen Harper," it warns. The compassionate, caring Canada we knew and loved is going, going … and will soon be gone.
Unfortunately, this ugly picture is not supported by the facts. Despite all that slashing, most of us still have it pretty good. Since 1981, Canadians' real personal disposable income, per capita, has gone up nearly 50 per cent. It's true that those gains have not been evenly distributed. But most people have done pretty well. During the recession, Canadian wages actually increased. "The past 15 years or so has seen significant broad-based improvements in wages and incomes," wrote Stephen Gordon, an economics professor at Laval University, last July on his Maclean's blog.
Yes, but what about the dreaded 1 per cent?
Maybe we shouldn't declare a class war just yet. According to Statistics Canada, income shares for the top 0.01 per cent, 0.1 per cent, 1 per cent, and 5 per cent are all down. The top 1 per cent peaked back in 2006, when they collected 12.1 per cent of total income. By 2011, their share was down to 10.6 per cent. (By contrast, in the United States, the top 1 per cent earned 19.7 per cent of income that year – nearly twice the slice of pie they got here.)
But wait. Child poverty is dismal. According to the anti-poverty group Campaign 2000, 967,000 children – one in seven – lived in poverty in 2011. The good news, if you read the fine print, is that the number was slightly lower than the year before. Child poverty can be measured in umpteen different ways, but by every measure, it's been in decline for 20 years. And when you measure actual, as opposed to relative, poverty – that is, the number of children who lack some of life's basic necessities – the number is more like 5 per cent, one in 20, according to the Fraser Institute's Christopher Sarlo. Not pretty. Not tolerable. But let's get a grip.
How responsible is Mr. Harper for this relatively benign picture? Probably not much. But it's hard to see how he's made things worse. Middle-class incomes are not stagnating in Canada, and social mobility is relatively high. As Prof. Gordon has noted on his blog, "If you were able to hold on to your job throughout the recession, you might well be in better financial shape now than you were four years ago: Not only has lower-than-expected inflation increased the purchasing power of your earnings, lower interest rates have also made it easier to service your debts."
Meantime, taxes haven't been this low since Dief was the chief. Whether that's good or bad is a matter of personal opinion.
Critics say Mr. Harper has many other sins to answer for. He slashed employment insurance, so that people who work at seasonal jobs for a few months each year in Quebec or PEI can no longer collect pogey for all the other months. He killed off Katimavik (founded by Justin Trudeau's dad!) and gutted Status of Women Canada, which may not be as necessary as it was in 1979, but still. He has even refused to pay for health care for refugees who arrive here illegally. How low can you go?
I am certainly not about to argue that everything is fabulous in Harperland. We still have miserable failures of aboriginal policy, although urban aboriginals are doing better. Wages for middle-income men are really stagnating. We have poverty traps and shortages of affordable housing. But anyone who thinks a lot of voters will object to employment insurance reforms, the death of Katimavik or the demotion of Status of Women has been spending way too much time in Starbucks.
Anything can happen in the next year or two. But if the next election is fought on the issue of smaller government and lower taxes versus higher penalties for consuming carbon, I know where I'll place my bet.