The Fraser Institute says it wants to launch a national debate on urban issues, but its first urban “alert” offers remarkably thin gruel – especially compared to more authoritative surveys released by others over the past year.
Two principal contributors – right-wing ex-politicians Mike Harris (former premier of Ontario) and Preston Manning – promise to launch “a national dialogue and understanding of urban issues” as part of their “Strong and Free Canada” (their capitals) initiative.
The “Fraser Alert” on Toronto was released in late June. It lacks the usual bombastic rhetoric that emanates from the business-backed organization that proudly proclaims its faith in uncontrolled, unregulated and undemocratic private markets.
The headline “Is Toronto in decline?” has an uncharacteristically equivocal question mark, something we don’t expect from an outfit that is almost always loud and firm in its opinions.
The increasingly troubling socio-economic landscape in Toronto and the surrounding metropolitan region has been well documented in previous studies, including:
- the TD Economics special report (An Update to TD Economics’ 2002 Report on the Greater Toronto Area Economy, July 2007);
- the United Way of Greater Toronto’s research report (Losing Ground: The persistent growth of family poverty in Canada’s largest city, November 2007); and,
- the University of Toronto’s Centre for Urban and Community Studies’ research bulletin 41 (The Three Cities Within Toronto: Income polarization among Toronto’s neighbourhoods, 1970 to 2000, December 2008).
From a community perspective, a significant amount of research funded by the Wellesley Institute, along with many of our partners in the Toronto Neighbourhoods Research Network and the Toronto Community-Based Research Network provide many critical details that are necessary to inform any debate.
The Growing Gap initiative provides thorough and reasoned stats and analysis on who’s winning, and who is losing, in today’s economy.
The Fraser urban edifice is built on trends in two simple sets of numbers: A survey of median (statistical middle) incomes in Toronto; and a quick review of occupations.
That’s all that is on offer from the Fraser Institute.
Somehow, Messrs Harris and Manning, and their research associates, managed to miss the single biggest and most alarming trend: Growing poverty and income inequality in the GTA.
TD Economics called poverty “among the most complex challenges confronted in the GTA. This issue is also among the most pressing,” (piii). Growing poverty and income inequality gets thorough treatment in both the CUCS and UWGT reports.
A deeply troubling table in the CUCS report notes the strong link between income and race: Toronto’s “whitest” neighbourhoods saw the biggest income gains over the past three decades; while black, Chinese and South Asian neighbourhoods have seen the biggest decline in average incomes.
“We hope that this evidence-based report will be a catalyst for action and second, that we can work together – with the community sector and all three orders of government to – overcome the systemic issues of poverty in Canada’s largest city,” wrote UWGT President and CEO Frances Lankin in the Losing Ground report.
Evidence is the critical fuel for any informed policy debate, and that’s just what the Fraser Institute ignores.
You’d expect that the pro-market organization like the Fraser would mention that, during the period when Toronto’s median income was not growing as fast as other Canadian municipalities, the Toronto CMA’s Gross Domestic Product (one conventional market measure) was bustling along at an average annual increase of about 2.5%, according to TD Economics.
So why, if the economy was doing so well, weren’t median incomes (and, especially, incomes in the middle, moderate and low-end) also increasing at a nice, brisk pace? Don’t Messers Harris and Manning believe, along with their Fraser Institute colleagues, that a rising tide lifts all boats?
Two important clues are offered in the TD Economics Report (and also observed in numerous other research studies):
First, it notes that government spending as a share of the economy has been dropping sharply in recent years. This was the deliberate policy of the Harris government (and other governments federal and provincial, for that matter): Cut spending and then hand out the proceeds in the form of tax cuts. The spending cuts for income assistance programs and other social spending (such as housing, education and health) primarily hurt lower-income people, while the tax cuts offer the biggest benefits to higher-income people and profitable corporations. Cutting government spending makes income inequality grow even worse.
Governments in Canada, and around the world, have traditionally played a key, and democratic role, in addressing market failures and ensuring that people have access to an adequate standard of living (an affordable home, decent food, medicine and health care, good child care, a good education, safe and secure neighbourhoods, social inclusion, a healthy environment, effective transportation and other necessities).
Reducing the ability of governments to take practical and effective actions on behalf of all the people increases income and social inequality.
Second, TD Economics notes a major shift in employment in the GTA. Manufacturing has been hard hit in recent years (something confirmed almost daily in the headlines). Most job gains in Toronto have been in the relatively lower-paying service sector – adding to the troubling trend on incomes.
A good debate requires sound evidence and reasoned analysis, neither of which is in evidence in the first Fraser Institute urban alert.