Take aim at inequality

Previously published in the Winnipeg Free Press Saturday October 21, 2023

Manitoba elected Premier Kinew based on a message of unity and rejected politics of division. While this message of unity is primarily contrasted against the dog whistle attacks during the campaign against Indigenous and LGBTTQ+ communities, economic polarization is an important factor that makes people vulnerable to these tactics. For Kinew and his government to create unity, they must focus on reversing income inequality and promoting economic mobility.

The Manitoba government must resist disproven trickle-down economics promoted by the previous government as these create inequities that result in a loss of human potential and open the door wider for the gutter politics of bigotry. International research shows the more unequal a society is, the more violent, unsafe, less educated and less healthy it is, and the more vulnerable to the far-right populism that has been on the rise.

Research shows that income inequality is growing in Manitoba faster than in the rest of Canada. This is due in part to the tax system becoming less progressive and not redistributing income to those in need. A recent report based on 2022 data, “The Chasm Widens: Inequality in Manitoba,” by University of Manitoba Economist Ian Hudson found that even with government redistribution, 30 per cent of families in Manitoba have after-tax incomes below a living wage. Income is a key social determinant of health — as seen in the huge gap in life expectancy between wealthy and low-income neighbourhoods. For example, those in Point Douglas live 16 years less than those in Fort Garry.

Budget 2023 made the problem even worse by cutting a whopping $949 million in Manitoba tax revenue, giving away more than $1,300 per person for the richest 10 per cent of Manitobans, who did quite well during the pandemic, while the poorest 10 per cent saved only $37.

The NDP went along with the PC government’s 50 per cent tax cut on education property taxes and regressive income tax cuts because they did not want taxes to become a wedge issue in the 2023 election. But the 2023 Budget bakes in regressive tax changes that widen the gap between the rich and the rest of us.

As a result, life-sustaining public services like mental health care and social housing are starved and the province is not providing adequate income transfers to families, seniors and people with disabilities. This lost tax revenue could have instead put money into the pockets of those most in need to fight food inflation or help with shelter costs.

It could have been used to address child poverty. Manitoba children raised by parents in the bottom income quintile stand a 41 per cent chance of repeating the cycle of poverty. In order to reverse this income inequality, the province must help people get ahead by investing in education and training while providing income support to enable people to study and attain a decent job. This also requires funding for high-quality child care, both to provide the spaces and train the workers that are needed to meet Manitoba’s commitments and labour force needs.

But public funding will be in short supply. The business lobby will be lining up at the Manitoba government’s door asking for more tax cuts, yet they profit from a workforce that requires healthcare, education and infrastructure, including child care, to work. Paying taxes is the cost of doing business in a healthy society.

Bold action is required to reduce inequality in Manitoba, including creating more childcare jobs and spaces, social housing, training, affordable public transportation, support for newcomers, and progressive taxation and public stimulus spending for decent, local jobs. This should be the priority to grow Manitoba’s workforce and economy in an inclusive way.

A first step is to move quickly to make the minimum wage a living wage, immediately benefiting the 30,000 Manitoba minimum wage workers and a positive knock-on effect for the 90,000 more making close to minimum wage. Multiple studies and evidence from other jurisdictions demonstrate raising the minimum wage has no proven evidence of aggregate job losses and creates economic stimulus from the bottom up.

It’s time for the Manitoba provincial government to reverse income equality, kick tax cuts to the curb, and make Manitoba less hospitable to the politics of division that reared its ugly head in the 2023 provincial election campaign.

Molly McCracken is the Manitoba director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.