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Since mid-September the Occupy movement has grown substantially around the world from a group of people in New York to a global force in over 900 cities worldwide. It is a collection of varying slogans and perspectives that has garnered media attention on one of the most important problems in our midst – inequality. While previous reports and organizations have been touting the negative impact of rising inequality, none have been as successful as the Occupy movement in changing public discourse.
“We are the 99%” has become a catch-phrase synonymous with the Occupiers who have reminded North Americans that the majority of the population has struggled to increase their overall wealth. Meanwhile in Canada, the top 1% doubled their income share between 1970-2007, and the middle class (the 80%) is smaller today than it was a generation ago. Add to this the fact that average wages are stagnant: an average Canadian working full time makes $42,988, while the best paid 100 CEOs make 155x that (none of which are women), and you have the tell-tale signs of increased inequality.
A growing gap between the richest segment of the population in Canada and the least affluent has been a topic of conversation amongst progressive individuals and groups for a while now. Last year a report was released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives called “The Rise of Canada’s Richest 1%” which stated that, “the 246,000 privileged few whose average income is $405,000 — took almost a third (32%) of all growth in incomes in the fastest growing decade in this generation, 1997 to 2007”. This goes against the “rising tides lifts all boats” economic theory that essentially proclaims that when business does well, we all do well.
The truth – we are not doing well and as inequality increases we can expect more problems as a society. Studies by the Equality Trust in the United Kingdom state that countries with greater levels of inequality are less healthy, less trusting, and have higher rates of imprisonment, teenage births, and stress. Inequality also impacts social mobility which goes against the concept of ‘the American dream’. You may want more, but chances are you will make won’t get it.
While Occupiers are not adopting a specific platform or strategy, they are directly and indirectly sparking much needed conversation on the issue. Media has jumped on board and consistently documented thoughts, activities and responses to the movement. Last week on CPAC’s Goldhawk Live, Dignity for All co-founder Canada Without Poverty's Executive Director Rob Rainer was asked to comment on the Occupy trend. He noted that disparity is increasing between the top 10-20%, not just the 1%, and called the movement, “a reflection of growing awareness in the US and Canada and around the world of disparity.” Reinforcing the point that this discussion is long overdue, Rainer welcomed the movements’ efforts to bring the issue more to the forefront, and raise the question of what needs to be done. He recommends a serious policy discussion at both the federal and provincial/territorial level to change the current trajectory.
Dignity for All has been working on pulling together recommendations for progressive policy that would be bundled into a draft federal poverty plan. Last year in March the first policy summit was held with 40 campaign supporters to tackle housing and early childhood education and care. These discussion represent important steps in aligning groups on specific 'asks' that can be presented to government and have a positive impact on social policy.
To add clout to the case, the Occupy movement has received affirmation from the business sector. An unlikely ally, Mark Carney – the Head of the Bank of Canada – calls Occupy movement ‘constructive’, acknowledging that the protests are an tackling the important issue of an ‘increase in inequality’. This is not the statement expected from a former banker, but a clear indication of the magnitude of the issue.
Whether you are in support of the Occupiers, confused by the message, or unsure of how to take it, one point is clear – the conversation has grown. And it is one that cannot be ignored.