By Dr. CHRISTOPHER J. MORGAN
Is it just me or is it getting harder to make ends meet?
Is it just me or do you know more and more people out of work who have been looking for a job for a long time without any luck?
Is it just me or do you know too many people, most of them women, working two or more jobs, eight days a week?
Have you noticed too many children going to school without breakfast, appropriate shoes and coats to keep them warm?
How many people do you know who have had to fight against discrimination and racism to gain access to housing, or to a job they are more than qualified for?
Are you shocked at the extremely long, (in many cases, several years) waiting list for a long-term care bed for your elderly mother? Do you know someone who has been forced to seek out a food bank to feed themselves and their family? What about affordable housing, the cost of child care or a post-secondary education?
By the way, how’s your health?
Well, apparently, it’s not just me and my imagination. In fact, a recently released report by the Ontario Common Front entitled, “Ontario’s Backslide into Widening Inequality, Growing Poverty and Cuts to Social Programs”, paints a fairly clear picture about life in Ontario.
Unless you are among the wealthiest of Ontarians, over the last 25 years you have probably noticed it is becoming increasingly more difficult to survive, let alone move ahead.
At first, it seems surprising that, despite Ontario’s very well-educated population, abundant natural resources, fertile agricultural and farm lands, and strong industrial framework, the province would be falling behind the rest of Canada in terms of growing poverty, increasing inequality and plummeting financial support for vital public services.
According to the report, the average CEO’s salary has grown from 25 times the average Canadian worker’s salary in 1980 to 250 times in 2011. Furthermore, the report states that the income gap between Ontario’s richest and poorest families has reached levels not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
When you take a look at one particular table, you can see that Ontario families with children with a household income of about $120,000 to $130,000 in 1976 saw an average 40 per cent increase in their household income by 2004.
In contrast, Ontario families with children and a household income of $30,000 to $90,000 experienced at best, a 10 per cent increase in household income. Those in the lower income bracket experienced as much as a 10 per cent drop in household income over the same 28-year period.
Remember the women I mentioned earlier who have to work two or more jobs eight days a week? Despite Ontario’s Pay Equity Act that was introduced 20 years ago, women still do not get paid what their male counterparts do for the same work.
According to the report, women in Ontario earn 71 cents for every dollar made by a man. Sadly, it is worse for women of colour, who make on average 64 cents for every dollar made by a man.
Pay attention, fathers and mothers of daughters. Even when you’re well-educated, women still don’t achieve pay equality. A male high school and university graduate will make 27 and 16 per cent more, respectively, than their equally educated female graduate.
Child poverty is another significant indicator of the well-being of society. Children live in poverty because their families live in poverty. Ontario’s child poverty level is discouraging. Child poverty in Ontario has increased from 11.4 per cent to 14.6 per cent between 1981 to 2009. In 2009, more than one in three children of single mothers lived in poverty. According to the 2006 Census, one in three racialized (people of colour) children in Ontario lived in poverty.
One Canadian study reported that a man living in the wealthiest 20 per cent of neighbourhoods will live on average four years longer than a man living in the poorest 20 per cent of neighbourhoods.
Women under the same circumstances will live on average two years longer. The same study indicated suicide rates were nearly twice as high in the lowest income neighbourhoods.
The report spends a fair bit of time depicting the various ways income inequality is displayed in Ontario. There is good reason for the focus on income. For one, it is recognized as one of the strongest (if not the strongest) determinants of health.
For example, Canadian researcher, Dennis Raphael, reports:
“Level of income shapes overall living conditions, affects psychological functioning, and influences health related behaviours such as quality of diet, extent of physical activity, tobacco use, and excessive alcohol use. In Canada, income determines the quality of other social determinants of health such as food security, housing, and other basic prerequisites of health.”
However, I was interested to see that the report made mention of racialized health disparities, noting that discrimination has an impact on health over and above income differences, behavioural risk factors and genetic susceptibility.
It went further to state:
“Racism and structural issues particularly experienced by racialized communities are frequently not included in analysis of the social determinants of health. Often racialized groups are invisible in health promotion campaigns, experience differential treatment in health services, have a lack of access to culturally appropriate health promotion and health information.”
These are issues the Black Health Alliance and other organizations have been raising for years.
How did we get here? Choices.
Over the last two to three decades, particularly since the 1990s, the Ontario government has made policy decisions that have favoured big business and high income earners, such as corporate tax cuts and other incentives and loopholes not accessible by the rest of society.
In the meantime, sustainable funding for vital services such as health care, education and social services have steadily eroded to the point that Ontario now has the dubious honour of being dead last in terms of per capita spending on social programs and services in Canada. Dead last.
When we fail to ensure that policies such as the 20-year-old Pay Equity Act are enforced and when we terminated Ontario’s Employment Equity Act in 1995, despite widespread evidence of systemic discrimination in the workforce; when we increase barriers to accessing employment insurance, reduce funding for colleges and universities to keep tuition and education costs down, and so on – we perpetuate inequality among citizens of this province.
Last but not least, when an economic recession hits, as it did in 2008 creating job losses and, arguably, contributing to Ontario’s now $15 billion dollar deficit, the first thing governments (not just here in Ontario) do is cut spending. Unfortunately, too often the programs and services on the chopping block are the ones we need most to ensure a just and equitable society.