By Robert Green
Thus far this series has looked at where Quebec’s political parties stand on education funding, curriculum reform, school autonomy ,the abolition of school boards , reducing the dropout rate, private school subsidies and respect for teachers. This the eighth and final article in the series will examine where the parties stand on an issue that, although seemingly less directly connected to education than the issues examined thus far in this series, has far greater implications for students, teachers and indeed Quebec’s educational success as a whole. That issue is inequality.
Back in 2009 a book was published that fundamentally changed the way many think about issues of economic and social development. It was entitled The Spirit Level and it represented a fundamental challenge to the notion that the well-being of a country’s citizens is first and foremost a product of its wealth. In comparing the international data on life expectancy, the book’s authors, who are both epidemiologists, observed that while indeed wealth was correlated with life expectancy in the early stages of a country’s economic development, once a certain basic level of development was achieved the correlations with wealth seemed to disappear. Instead what they observed amongst developed countries was that life expectancy was correlated not with a country’s wealth but with its level of economic inequality; people in countries with less economic inequality lived longer than those in more unequal countries, even if the overall wealth of the unequal countries was greater.
They then noticed that this pattern applied not just to life expectancy but to just about every statistical indicator of a society’s well being that they could find. In presenting this vast array of data, the book provides extremely compelling objective evidence of something that many have known intuitively for some time: societies with more economic equality tend to be happier, healthier, better educated and more prosperous. If there is a take-away message from this book for voters at election time, it is that there is not a more urgent and important issue for our political leaders than that of creating a more equal society.
The Spirit Level’s implications for education warrant special attention. Not only does it show that traditional indicators of a country’s educational success, such as achievement and graduation rates, are correlated with greater equality, it also shows a number of other indicators that are less directly related to education to be as well. Consider the effects that each of the following factors can have on the daily lives of education workers and the overall success of Quebec’s students: mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse, teenage births, obesity, homicide, imprisonment, trust, optimism, social mobility, bullying, childhood conflict. Each and every one of these factors is correlated with equality. Countries that are more equal show more positive results in each factor. The inescapable conclusion is that there is perhaps no more important priority for improving Quebec’s educational outcomes than reducing its level of economic inequality.
So how has Quebec society been doing in recent years in terms of its level of inequality? A 2010 study jointly produced by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) and L’Institut de recherche et d’informations socio-économiques (IRIS) sought to examine this very question. Although the study indicates that thanks to the historically high level of government intervention in Quebec, inequality is less of a problem in Quebec than it is in the rest of Canada, it also points to a disturbing trend of growing inequality in Quebec. The study examines the period between 1976 and 2006, noting that inequality had grown steadily in Quebec during this period, reaching a 30 year high in 2006.
“Quebeckers worked more and the province’s economy grew by 71% during this period but not all Quebec families enjoyed the benefits,” says IRIS co-author Bertrand Schepper. “The lion’s share of income gains went to the richest 10%, while the majority of Quebec families – the bottom 70% — ended up with a smaller share of the income pie.” According to the data presented in this study, the sharpest growth in inequality occurred in the period since 1996.