Education and the 2012 Quebec Election: Part Eight – Where do the Parties Stand on Inequality?

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.

Parti Liberal du Quebec (PLQ)

Since coming to power in 2003, the Charest government has offered income tax cuts that disproportionately favour the rich while enacting user fee increases to health care, education and electricity that place an unfair burden on the poor. Such policies have had the extremely predictable effect of widening the income gap in Quebec. Indeed, despite meager investments in social housing and anti-poverty programs by the Liberals, this was the general trend in Quebec right up until 2008. The economic downturn seems to have had the effect of reducing inequality slightly. Despite the fact that its policies had little to do with Quebec’s recent drop in inequality, the Liberal Party’s 2012 budget devoted a special section to bragging about the fact that Quebec had become a more equal society between 2003 and 2009. Had 2008 been chosen as the cut-off date instead of 2009, the picture offered would have been one of rising inequality.

Looking at the current Liberal platform, with its promise to maintain scheduled user fee increases and its emphasis on paying down the deficit, it seems very likely that a future Liberal government would return the province to the pattern of growing inequality.

Parti Quebecois (PQ)

The Party Quebecois shares in the responsibility for the growing inequality seen in Quebec over the last two decades. The data presented in the CCPA/IRIS study shows an accelerated trend towards deepening inequality beginning in the mid-nineties, right around the time the PQ brought in its deep cuts to social spending. These spending cuts were later followed by a series of tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the rich and had the effect of widening inequality.

The current PQ platform seems to indicate that the party has become somewhat more concerned with the problem of inequality. Its platform contains several items that would have the effect of reducing inequality. These include: adding 1500 new public daycare spots; offering kindergarten for 4 year olds in disadvantaged neighbourhoods; cancelling the tuition fee increase and the health care tax; adding 500 low cost private housing units and 500 public housing units; implementing a series of tax measures aimed at increasing taxes on the wealthy. However, when speaking recently to Montreal’s chamber of commerce PQ leader Pauline Marois bragged about having played a central role in the Bouchard government’s zero deficit crusade and assured the audience of business leaders that debt reduction, not increased spending, would be the PQ’s priority.

Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ)

The issue of inequality seems not to be on the CAQ’s radar at all. Its platform contains no measures aimed at reducing inequality and its fiscal plan promises to direct any funds that could be used for social spending to debt reduction.

Quebec Solidaire (QS)

Quebec Solidaire is without question the party most concerned with the issue of inequality. Theirs is clearly a vision of a Quebec where poverty doesn’t exist. The number of items in its platform that would put downward pressure on levels of inequality in Quebec are almost too numerous to list. Some of the more significant proposals include: an extensive overhaul of the tax system that would significantly shift the tax burden towards the wealthiest members of society; fostering the creation of workers cooperatives; eliminating all user fees related to health care and education; increasing support to aboriginal communities; working towards a system of free public transport within 10 years; creating 40,000 new public daycare spots; granting new rights to temporary workers; building 50,000 new public housing units; cracking down on illegal rent increases by landlords; implementing a guaranteed and unconditional minimum income; creating a universal public pension plan that will be indexed to inflation; significantly increasing minimum wage; strengthening and extending the enforcement of the Pay Equity Act to all workplaces; strengthening collective bargaining rights. If the central conclusion of The Spirit Level is to be taken seriously, such an extensive program to reduce inequality should – with a fair degree of certainty – take Quebec in the direction of becoming a happier, healthier, better educated and more prosperous society.

Option Nationale (ON)

While the Option Nationale platform does not specifically address the issue of inequality, it does contain a few measures which would have the effect of reducing it. These include: massive investments in public transportation; support for workers cooperatives; eliminating all user fees for education.

Parti Vert du Quebec (PVQ)

The Green Party platform contains a section devoted specifically to the question of social justice. It lists numerous initiatives aimed at reducing inequality, including: reducing all salaried full time Quebecers to a 35 hour work week; increasing minimum wage; supporting the unionization of more workers; implementing regulations to improve the quality of part-time work; implementing a guaranteed minimum income; constructing 8000 new social housing units.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series and that it has better prepared you to make an informed decision come elections day. Stay up to date on the issues discussed in this series by ‘liking‘ on Facebook or by signing up to follow this blog via email. Links for both are on the column to the right.

TED Talk by Spirit Level Co-Author Richard Wilkinson

How economic inequality harms societies

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