Inequality: a fact, an interpretation, and a policy recommendation

Tackling inequality and poverty aren’t mutually exclusive; rather, efforts devoted to fighting the former contribute to solving the latter.

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An inclusive society seeks to eliminate child poverty

Wellington New Zealand

My meeting with senior Treasury officials began with the nonchalantly stated advice “In the event of an earthquake we like to get under the tables and hold on to the legs so that they don’t get away from us.”

As a Canadian, albeit one who has visited New Zealand three times in the past decade, I naively took this as a metaphor for the earth-shattering ideas the public service expects from its consultations with outside experts.

I assure you that the dozen or more participants gathered to discuss how the government might contribute to building “a more inclusive New Zealand” offered advice that was far from ground breaking.

How possibly could they?

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Building a more inclusive society requires a conversation about inequality

[ This post is based on the opening address I gave on the invitation of the New Zealand Treasury to the “A More Inclusive New Zealand Forum” held in Wellington, New Zealand on July 27th, 2015. ]

I would like to open this gathering with a statement of admiration for both its content, and its process. The organizers have asked us to deliberate on “inclusion”, and to do so through conversation.

As a part of my contribution to this conversation I would ask you to consider four major messages, all four of which revolve around the question: What does inclusion mean?

I use “mean” in the sense of how we define inclusion, and “mean” in the sense of its implications for policy.

What does “inclusion” mean, and how can we give it enough precision to inform public policy?

My four messages are:

  1. an inclusive society means that all children can become all that they can be;
  2. an inclusive society seeks to eliminate child poverty;
  3. income inequality has the potential to erode inclusion;
  4. public policy must address many dimensions of inequality.

 

A More Inclusive New Zealand Forum

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Two stories about inequality

In many rich countries the “hard” facts describing the income distribution are easily available. Yet, discussions about inequality are animated by two different stories with very different public policy implications.

You can listen to a caricature of these points of view in this pair of interviews on CBC radio: http://www.cbc.ca/radiowest/2015/01/21/two-different-takes-on-the-worlds-wealthiest-one-per-cent/

I offer more detail on the way Canadians have framed these stories as a part of a presentation to the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s university.

Here is Story 1 in pictures

(click on an image to start the slideshow and press Escape to return to this page).

Here is Story 2 in pictures

(click on an image to start the slideshow and press Escape to return to this page).

My presentation argued that context—rooted in economic theory and the appropriate use of statistics—is needed to understand the truth behind these stories, and to turn them into a conversation useful for public policy.

Here is the full set of slides I used.

Corak_Two_Stories_about_Inequality_and_Public_Policy_presentation_to_Queens_University_February_5_2015

UNICEF gives Canada a passing grade, child poverty actually fell during the recession … or did it?

UNICEF Children of the Recession Innocenti Report Card 12 CoverLet’s see if we can make sense of this.

UNICEF has just given Canada a passing grade, mind you barely a pass, when it comes to the fight against child poverty. In a report released today it claims that 21% of Canadian children live in poverty, nothing to brag about, but at least this is lower than the 23% who were poor just before the recession started in 2008.

Interestingly, Statistics Canada also says child poverty is down, but that only 8.5% of kids are poor. However, at the same time it says child poverty is up, reaching almost 14%. And finally, if this is not confusing enough, it says that, yes, 14% of kids are poor, but this is down since 2008.

Up or down? One-in-five kids poor, or one-in-seven, or maybe even as few as only one-in-eleven?

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UNICEF reports that child poverty in the US was held in check during the Great Recession

UNICEF Children of the Recession Innocenti Report Card 12 CoverIt is an understatement to say that the US welfare reforms of the 1990s were intended to give a little spring to the social safety net.

The intention was much more radical, involving a major make-over of income support, and turning what was imagined as a net ensnarling many Americans behind a welfare wall, into a trampoline, a springboard that would incentivize work and allow them to ride a wave of prosperity to higher incomes that would lift their children out of poverty.

But this is hardly what is needed when times turn bad.

The only virtue of a trampoline when employment falls by more than 8 million, when the unemployment rate more than doubles, and when median incomes drop by over $10,000, is that it catches you on the way down.

American families needed a safety net during the Great Recession, and a report released by UNICEF on child poverty suggests, surprisingly enough, that is exactly what they got.

The rate of child poverty, in spite of all the macroeconomic turbulence of the last six years, has hardly budged. This is in large measure because of discretionary policy changes on the part of the Federal government that quickly turned the clock back to the welfare system of the 1980s.

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