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Election 2021
The Run

You’ve Got Better Chances in Monopoly than in Canada

Somehow, an 85-year-old board game distributes wealth more fairly than we do.

Paul Willcocks 7 Sep 2021TheTyee.ca

Paul Willcocks is a journalist and former publisher of newspapers, and now an editor with The Tyee.

[Editor’s note: This is an abridged version of a story that first appeared in our pop-up election newsletter, The Run. Sign up here to get new issues sent directly to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday until election day.]

People have been playing Monopoly for 85 years now. The rules are simple: Roll the dice, move around the board buying real estate and railways, collecting rents. Capitalism in 40 squares.

In the game, players all start with $1,500 in brightly coloured Monopoly money. The rest is up to them.

But that’s not how it works in Canada, as a report this year on family wealth from parliamentary budget officer Yves Giroux reminded us.

The richest 10 per cent of families control more than 55 per cent of all wealth in Canada. The bottom 40 per cent control 1.2 per cent.

Here’s what a realistic Canadian Monopoly game with 100 players would look like. (You’d need a big table.)

One player would start the game with $38,400. Another four would start with $6,750 each, and five with $4,620. That covers the 10 per cent of the wealthiest families.

The next 10 would receive $2,570.

And the bottom 40 players would start with $45 a piece — not enough to buy the cheapest property on the board.

The actual game would have vanished long ago if it was as unfair as Canada’s real-life version. Who’d play if they knew they were set up to lose?

Income distribution is similarly concentrated in the richest groups. The top 10 per cent of tax filers in 2017 had 34 per cent of all income, with a median income of $124,000. The bottom 50 per cent had 18 per cent, with a median of $17,800.

And the rich have been getting richer. In 1982, the top one per cent earned 6.7 times the median Canadian income. Thirty-five years later, they earned 9.2 times the median.

This isn’t the inevitable result of mysterious market forces. Governments, lobbied by the rich and powerful, have chosen policies that ensure inequality will grow and wealth will be concentrated in fewer hands.

Some are obvious, like tax loopholes that favour high-income earners and lax enforcement of the rules by Revenue Canada.

But wealth and the economy aren’t the only ways inequality pops up in our system. Voters who are convinced that entrenched inequality is wrong and corrosive for society will also have to weigh the parties’ positions on a wide range of issues, from justice for Indigenous peoples to child poverty to pensions.

Look at education, for example. Public education has traditionally been considered the great equalizer, but affluent families are increasingly opting for private schools, which promise better future opportunities for students. Same goes for quality child care, which is supposed to give children from poorer families a fairer start in life and allow parents to keep working. How will the parties address these issues?

Governments have also allowed or encouraged precarious, low-paid jobs without benefits to replace the kind of stable, often unionized work that allowed generations of Canadians to build a future for themselves and their families. What are they proposing in this election to reverse the worsening world of work?

And, of course, there’s housing, where soaring prices have enriched many homeowners and brought higher costs and instability to the lives of renters, who in turn are paying more and more of their incomes to simply keep a roof over their heads.

It’s admittedly a daunting task to sort through all the policies. But we’re here to help. The Tyee has picked five critical areas to focus on in this campaign: climate change; housing; COVID-19 and what lies ahead; justice for Indigenous peoples — and wealth and inequality.

Politicians — especially right-wing politicians — like to talk about Canada as a land of opportunity, where if you just work hard and keep trying you can achieve anything. (Which implicitly suggests that if you don’t succeed, it’s your fault, rather than the result of their bad policy choices.)

That’s always been a myth. But over the last four decades the gap between myth and reality has been widening. It’s now a crisis.

The current state of inequality is morally and pragmatically wrong.

Morally, because an accident of birth should not decide the course of a child’s life. As a society, we can level the playing field, at least somewhat, to provide opportunity for all, not just a small group of the increasingly wealthy.

And pragmatically because this accelerating inequality will in time destroy our political systems and society, with unforeseeable but likely dire consequences. (The U.S., with much higher inequality, offers at least one vision of the future that could be ahead for Canada.)

There are many critical issues in this election. We hope you’ll consider this one of them. We will do our best to help you decide which party offers the best measures to reverse this dangerous, corrosive trend.

THE RUNDOWN

Additional readings reeled in from around the web.

Want to know more about inequality in this country?: The Conference Board of Canada digs into the gains made by the richest Canadians here, while the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has an entire project on the issue. The Chartered Professional Accountants have their take here, including the finding that the problem is greatest in big cities like Vancouver.

About those tax loopholes: The Tyee’s Andrew MacLeod dug into the billions in tax loopholes during the last election campaign — was it just two years ago? — and the parties’ positions. And I looked at the success of the well-funded anti-tax lobby in stopping any reforms to produce a fairer system.

The toll of child poverty: The most alarming impact of inequality is the lasting damage to millions of children. Childhood poverty is the most important factor in determining people’s future health. It robs society of the contributions of people who, with opportunity, could make us stronger. And Canada is increasingly a country where your future is determined by your childhood. If your family was poor when you were a child, then you’re far more likely to be poor as an adult.  [Tyee]

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