Why We Don't Mind the Gap
Millions of us would first like to get wealthy before we get equal
By Marc Zwelling
Like the weather adage—everyone talks about inequality, but no one does anything about it.
When the Pollara polling firm interviewed Canadians last November, 87 per cent agreed that "income inequality is an important public issue." Some 37 per cent agreed strongly.
In a July EKOS poll, a 31 per cent plurality said "the growing gap between the rich and poor" should be the most important issue in "discussions about Canada's future." But significant shares of the public disagreed: 26 per cent said "issues related to the economy like economic growth and jobs" are the most important and 24 per cent said "social issues like health and education" were.
While it's certainly a problem, inequality is not an issue: something's an issue if it confronts us with choices and forces us to choose one. No major political party has put an inequality platform before the voters. So we don't have to decide what to do about the gap between the rich and the rest.
Even before the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, Canadians have felt themselves to be growing less equal. In Environics Research surveys from 1990 to 2010, seven in ten people agreed the gap between the rich and poor has widened.
While most of us think the rich are getting farther ahead of everybody else, there's no consensus about why. In a 2011 Environics poll, 18 per cent blamed the gap on tax breaks for the wealthy and big corporations, while 14 per cent said the capitalist system is the culprit because it hurts the needy and helps the rich. Smaller percentages named other reasons, including free trade, government policies, and greed.
Why is there no voter pressure to make inequality a ballot box question? Canadians sense that making a more equal society won't be painless. In a 2012 Environics poll, only 27 agreed "strongly" that Canada should be a country "where there is not a big difference in income between the wealthy and everyone else." Another 36 per cent "somewhat agreed," and 33 per cent disagreed.
Getting to a place with "not a big difference" between the incomes of the rich and others means fewer people are wealthy. But millions of us would first like to get wealthy before we get equal.
In a Forum Research poll in 2013, 76 per cent agreed (50 per cent "strongly") that "provincial and federal governments should do more to redistribute wealth from the richest to poorest Canadians." But this consensus around the vague idea of "do more" does not mean do a lot, which is what it would take to upgrade millions of low-income earners to business class. Raising the minimum wage won't reduce the gap since everyone who now earns more will expect a pay hike when everyone at the minimum gets a raise.
There's also no upward trend in voter demand to narrow the rich-poor gap. Just before the deep recession began in 2008, 50 per cent agreed in an Environics poll that "government should implement strong policies to reduce income inequality." In 2014 some 48 per cent agreed.
Actually, as we get richer we get less inclined to sacrifice in order to bring up the bottom. Among those in households with annual earnings under $30,000, 56 per cent support "strong policies to reduce income inequality." At the other end of the income scale, in households with $100,000+ yearly incomes, just 31 per cent support "strong" policies to reduce inequality.
These data mean that Canadians view inequality as unavoidable, more than unacceptable. As the federal election draws nearer, expect to hear more about inequality. But also expect your candidates to swear to fight for the middle class. If they succeed, that will be good for the middle class. But it will do nothing about inequality.
Marc Zwelling is the founder of the Vector Poll™ (www.vectorresearch.com) and author of Public Opinion and Polling for Dummies, published by Wiley (2012).