Super-unequal British Columbia

By Amy Reiswig, April 2015

Through statistics and personal stories, Andrew MacLeod delves into the realities and costs of poverty in BC.

The Occupy movement (with roots in Vancouver) visibly highlighted the growing gap in wealth between the world’s richest—the so-called 1 percent—and the 99 percent, meaning everyone else. While those looking at income globally might say that even the poorest in Canada are better off than most, in A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour: April 2015) Andrew MacLeod questions that self-satisfaction by focusing on details of how inequality plays out here at home in BC. MacLeod, The Tyee’s legislative bureau chief, hits us where we live, drawing attention to harsh socioeconomic realities that many of us either don’t realize, don’t care about, or feel powerless to affect. But as his title says, the search is for fairness, for solutions, and MacLeod hopes to inspire a collective will to change—for everyone’s benefit.

“If we look at accumulated wealth, British Columbia is easily the most unequal province in Canada,” MacLeod writes. As the book was going to press, BC’s richest 10 percent—about 450,000 people—held 56.2 percent of the wealth, while the bottom half, or 2.25 million people, held only 3.1 percent. 

Down deeper, the province’s poorest 10 percent had negative wealth, owing more than they owned, with a median debt of $10,700. MacLeod cites numerous studies, including the 2011 TD Economics special report Assessing the Financial Vulnerability of Households Across Canadian Regions which found that, on average, BC residents had the country’s highest debt-to-income ratio and debt-service cost, and that BC was the only province with an average negative savings rate. 

With an annual budget of $45 billion and a GDP that MacLeod says is as good as anywhere, a province rich in both natural resources and talented people, BC is also where the minimum wage leaves people thousands of dollars below the poverty line and where long-stagnant welfare rates include housing amounts far out of touch with some of the most expensive rents and real estate in the country. How did we get here? And, more importantly, MacLeod asks, where are we headed? 

MacLeod has been reporting on issues around homelessness and poverty for years. Studying at UVic in the early 1990s, he wrote for the Martlet and later became a full-time reporter for Monday Magazine before joining The Tyee. This book, his first, came out of a ten-part series he wrote for The Tyee and reflects his ability to access everyone from the power-brokers who make or influence policy to those who research and analyze it, to the poor who are most affected.

Assuring me he’s “just a reporter, not an activist,” MacLeod stresses the book isn’t partisan but fact-based, and he balances charts and stats with personal stories. Alongside things like the Gini coefficient and the LICO (low income cut-off), for example, are individual lives, like a Victoria researcher who, despite being retirement age, has to keep working to afford a place to live because her one-bedroom apartment rent is $900 a month (after being “renovicted” from a bigger place) while her CPP and Old Age Security payments only come to about $960. One particularly moving instance MacLeod relates is a woman who, after being cut off from welfare for a reason she said was unfair, had no income, lost her home and resumed prostitution. Then, hoping to leave sex work, she returned to an abusive relationship where she was beaten badly enough to break bones. “Meanwhile,” he writes, government ministers in charge of policies and rates “make salaries 20 times greater than what an individual receives on welfare.” 

“People sometimes say, ‘Oh that’s just anecdotal,’” MacLeod tells me. But anecdotal is real, and he aims to show how people’s experiences are not simply the result of poor choices, as some often assert, but fit into larger societal trends and result from specific policies. “I wanted to write something,” he says “that was hard to argue with.” 

What he’s hoping will be unarguable is not just BC’s inequality problem but its danger to the economy and society overall. “[W]e all have a place in the picture,” he writes. While some of the effects of inequality are visible—at homeless shelters or food banks, for example—MacLeod points out less visible impacts like people not taking prescriptions because of cost; kids unable to participate in extra-curricular activities, leading to social isolation; families living in substandard housing at the hands of “poverty pimp” landlords; workers making risky investments or taking out high-interest payday loans to afford housing costs. These all lead to impacts in the health and mental health sectors, education, child welfare and more. In the end, inequality affects us all, and MacLeod’s book weighs the costs of action against those of inaction—costs that are fiscal but also ethical.

Thus, the book is part number crunching and criticism but also awareness- and question-raising. Why should we care? Do we have to accept it? As pediatrician Barbara Fitzgerald, a teacher at UBC and president of the Mom to Mom Child Poverty Initiative Society, says: “When I see a young child in my clinic who is living in a situation of poverty and neglect, I ask myself how I, as a voting citizen, am responsible for this.” MacLeod reminds us that the starting point for change is how we each think about the system and about one another.

Inequality is clearly not just part of MacLeod’s beat as a reporter. Rather, he’s obviously someone who feels strongly that we’re all connected. Born in Montreal, MacLeod grew up in Toronto and recalls that in the 1980s, when mental health institutions were being closed, there were noticeably more folks on the streets, even to a kid. But his dad told him: “Don’t worry. This is Canada. We take care of people.” In later years in BC, though—particularly after changes to the welfare system in 2001—MacLeod realized that wasn’t really happening. “The safety net just wasn’t there,” he tells me. A father of two kids, he’s sensitive to the situation of children and child poverty. For the last few years BC has topped the country in that area as well. 

In the book, MacLeod proposes over 30 solution-oriented ideas. Some are things already being called for in the community, like raising welfare rates and the minimum wage (beyond the recent and insufficient 20-cent hourly hike). Others are more unusual, such as introducing a maximum wage or even tying government wages to the provincial median income, giving policy-makers incentive to help everyone, not just those at the top, do better. (A seemingly outlandish strategy, it’s actually been adopted in, of all places, Alabama.) 

MacLeod admits his proposals couldn’t all be implemented, but his point is: It’s not that hard to think of options. He writes, “We’ve gotten where we are through public policies that led to one set of results, and we can achieve a different result by either adjusting those policies or replacing them with others that are fairer.”

MacLeod believes change is possible. Citing the recent BC Liberal decision to end the clawback of child support payments to people on social assistance, he tells me optimistically, “Change does happen, when the opposition is onside and when the public demands it.” For MacLeod, citizen engagement is absolutely critical for addressing inequality. 

The book is therefore not a downer indictment of a broken system. Yes, A Better Place on Earth forces you to confront some at times uncomfortable questions about society, government, economics and even your own nature—your own level of acquisitiveness, your own commitment to helping others, what you are willing to accept or act on—but ultimately, MacLeod hopes to get us asking, more positively: “What can we imagine?” and “What can we do together?”

 

A Better Place on Earth is being launched on April 28 at 7pm, Bard & Banker Pub, 1022 Government Street.

Especially in the spring, it’s hard for former Montrealer Amy Reiswig not to superficially think BC is indeed one of the best places on Earth, but she believes, with MacLeod, that we all have a role in making it better for everyone.