Thursday, January 13, 2011

Poverty, Wealth, and Statistics. . . . .

It is not surprising to find that it is not only the Conservatives who are quick to attack any statistical report the results of which they don't like. Other partisans play the game too. Witness Aaron Ginsberg's rather vociferous attack on the report on poverty in Toronto by U of T Professor David Hulchanski. Now given Mr. Ginsberg's stated bias against all things academic, and Professor Hulchanski's obvious credentials and commitment to poverty reduction, I tend to give the Professor the benefit of the doubt. And if you read Mr. Ginsberg's blog carefully one can see that even his argument is not as solid as he projects, given that a full understanding of the issue could only come with a very detailed analysis of comparative costs of living from the 70s to now. However, neither Mr. Ginsberg nor myself could fully develop the argument for or against the professor without a more detailed analysis.

What strikes me as very interesting is that a Liberal would take the time to attempt to discredit an academic report, the only purpose of which is to bring attention to the issue of poverty. Given that Harper is a genuine threat to democracy in this country, I think that there are significantly more important issues with which to grapple. One of the focuses of this and other reports like it is to add to the realization that since the 1970s the riches portion of the population has an ever increasing percentage of society's wealth - and this goes not just for Canada but almost all Western Countries. Most Conservatives disregard the significance of this changing social balance because they claim that all that really matters are 'real' rates of poverty. However, beside the fact that there is no objective, trans-historical standard for measuring poverty, the percentage of wealth that is controlled by the richest group is actually very important. The Conservatives deny this for the fairly simple reason that they tend to have a one-dimensional view of power and democracy and they fail to understand that wealth translates into social power. Even if a society had no discernable poverty at all, the amount of a society's wealth that is controlled by the top, say, ten percent of the richest people or families is very significant because if the richest have a high enough percentage of the wealth they will much more effectively control the political institutions, the media, and media's agenda. It is not poverty per se that matters, it is the over all social equality which allows people to have an equitable stake in the how society runs that really counts.

Given that even in Canada the richest ten percent control a majority of the country's wealth and that many people do not have enough wealth to meet their basic needs, let alone to be active and fulfilled citizens, I really think Mr. Ginsberg's attack on Professor Hulchanski is misplaced and counter-productive. And if one has a bone to pick with academia and its various methodologies, there is significantly more dubious and harmful work being done by academics here and abroad.  Moreover, I have seen significant evidence that the discrepancy between the richest and the poorest in this country and elsewhere has dramatically increased in the past two decades. Furthermore, I know empirically that the percentage of people's incomes taken up by their primary expenses (housing, food, and transportation) is much higher today then it was in 1970. And perhaps more significantly (and something that few people talk about) the majority of people actually work much harder today, carry much higher debt, and have less leisure time than they did 50 years ago, a fact that impoverishes all of us.

Was there problems with Professor Hulchanski's report? Probably. Is there something deeply wrong with people who worry more about nit-picking at a statistical methodology than the real issues of poverty and wealth in society? Definitely!

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