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President’s Report - December, 2009

Providing Abundance... ...what kind of fairness?

The Toronto Conference’s Fall Rally, Providing Abundance ... what kind of fairness?, proved to be quite a surprising event for me.

A day before the event, our keynote speaker, Armine Yalnizyan phoned me to let me know that she had been unable to shake a week-long flu and was probably not going to make it. Clearly, as we talked, it became clear that it was best for her to not even try to make it. So she stayed at home and I got to work sifting through much of the material she sent me that were part of her presentation.

It was a long but enjoyable evening reading through material of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). Ultimately, I was able to pull together some slides and make a presentation on her behalf.

Armine’s focus is on inequality. She acknowledges that poverty levels have gone done in Canada recently while the gap between rich and poor has increased dramatically. The popularly accepted definition of poverty in Canada is Statistics Canada’s low income cut-off; and this is in spite of Statistics Canada’s objections that there is no internationally recognized measure of poverty.

There are fewer people below that low income cut-off; however, the dispersion of income levels continues to grow. And this she asserts is a more effective measure - inequality.

Her work and of the CCPA is about demonstrating how this dispersion is a much better measure of poverty or economic dislocation than the low income cut-off.

Briefly, the wider the gap, the more dramatic this inequality, the less able the institutions of society are to function for the population. This is because those institutions are forced to deal with a population with growing divergent and competing economic interests. As economic power resides in fewer and fewer hands, institutions respond to where that power is more and more. This is true of both the public and private sector. We see this in the public sector as schools in affluent neighbourhoods flourish due to investment and fundraising efforts by parents where schools in less affluent neighbourhoods go without.

In the private sector a market economy is driven by the laws of consumption and scarcity. We are encouraged to consume. Those who do not have the wherewithal to consume become forgotten members of society. There is less and less institutional focus on their needs because their purchasing power is limited. On the contrary, institutions of society now become armed against providing any assistance to growing numbers of people who are being left out of the economic process. Communities become gated. Economies grow around the concept of ensuring that those who have keep what they have and acquire, with the rest of the population receiving the economic reverberations from this group.

This is a simply explained by looking at the effect on the housing market when economic power is concentred in fewer and fewer hands. Those who have much exert an impact on society by virtue of their ability to outmuscle others economically. They are able, and do pay any price for a home they want. Their enhanced ability to compete for housing drives prices up generally. Every single strata of society below them must respond to the tightening of this market; with those at the bottom economic levels facing the hardest economic impact and damage.

The CCPA does interesting work in looking at relationships over time.

The levels of CEO income to the average income has increased manifold over the past few years. Between 1998 and 2007 the annual income of CEOs went from $3.5 million to $10.4 million. The average wage earner went from $33,000 to $40,000.

A big difference, yes. But how big is big?

Plato told Aristotle that no man should make more than five times what another man makes. J.P. Morgan said twenty times and he was a robber baron. What do we have in the here and now?

Well in that same ten year period the ratio actually increased from and 104 times the average wage earner to 259 times.

All that provided a focus for some excellent audience participation. One discussion focus involved having small groups consider the question.

Which group would you prefer to be in?

Making $100,000 a year while 90% of the people make less than you or $110,000 while 90% make more than you?

This was an exercise in understanding how inequality and not low income levels drives people’s perception and experience of poverty. To be sure most people pick the $100,000 figure.

But all that came after a terrific morning program put on by Beach United Youth, the soulliving group. They put together a Jeopardy quiz for the 80 participants for the one day program. The focus of their program was consistent with our theme as best defined by the scriptural text from 2 Corinthians: 8-15, “The person who had much did not have too much, and the person who had little did not have too little.”

And all this was followed by the have and have not lunch I described in last month’s report. Sharing ensued.

We close the day with a wonderful Jazz Vespers service with the xCentric Jazz band.

Jim McKibbin , National AOTS President

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