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How we still keep the poor down on Family Day

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Last week we saw active debate about income splitting in Canada and about raising the minimum wage. In the U.S. there is debate about extending health care benefits and all of these discussions have a common ground. An underdog group wants to better its situation.

Through history this is of course normal. In democracies we teach the right to equal benefit under the law, the right to respect and dignity for all. Justice is supposed to be blind. Our human rights law does not permit discrimination based on religion, race, language, gender, even family status.

And yet these currents do not go easily together -- the one for equality and the status quo of inequality. There is resistance to income splitting, to raising the minimum wage, to extending health care more widely. How could this be? Why would anyone stand against lifting up those who have less?

Well, the arguments are fascinating. When a situation currently benefits one group over another, clearly the loser will want to fix the problem. But clearly too, the winner may not. Nobody with four aces argues for a new deal.

This past week some of the arguments against changes for equality have surprised me for their bluntness. I have often heard the excuses for not helping the underdogs. In fact this year marks 48 years of me hearing those excuses. But it took women over 70 years to get the vote. A long delay is one of the tricks up the sleeve of the haves. It is what lawyers use to delay litigants and wear them down with the costs of the fight. It is what governments use to send an issue to committee, buying them months, sometimes years to mull it over and get it out of the public eye.

But the blatant excuses this week were stunning. I'd have to get out a book on logic tricks to marvel at the gamesmanship.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is hesitating now because income splitting "won't help a large number of Canadians." Well, what about the ones it would help?

Columnist Michael Den Tandt says "there's no benefit for divorced families." But divorced families are not in the same household and have chosen not to be.

The C.D. Howe Institute says income splitting "would discourage mothers in particular from returning to the workforce." That excuse is particularly galling. It says mothers who want to be home with the kids must not get tax breaks because that might help them be home with kids. It likes penalties.  
It is a leap away from respecting preference.

Bill Curry of the Globe and Mail says that income splitting is "by far the most expensive tax cut promise in the 2011 Conservative election platform."  This argument, that it costs too much money to change the law, that we might have to take a hit somewhere to correct imbalance, is a one governments are fond of. They can't afford it, they tell the underdog. Nice idea, sure would like to help you but you see, it would just cost too much.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in its paper on income splitting says that mostly the rich would benefit. Each of the top four deciles of income would get more than 10 per cent of the total benefit. This argument is interesting too because it looks like it wants to help the poor, to not just be a windfall for the rich. And yet its conclusion is to then not even help  
the poor.

David Macdonald of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says that income splitting would benefit sole-earner families most. This objection is also interesting given that right now the biggest penalty is to those families. Right now they pay up to 45 per cent higher tax than equally earning households of different earning styles. If there is a pothole in the street, yes you would have to level it with the most earth put into that pothole. So is it any surprise that a correction would most correct where the problem was worst? Yet this is flouted as a problem.

It just interests me how the winners try to justify while they still should get the most.

In the big U.S. and Canadian push to raise the minimum wage we hear a similar argument of how it is best to keep the poor poor. They say that if you make employers have to pay more, then they'll fire people so in the end it's best to keep pay low.

An argument to favour the winners can be phrased so cleverly can it not? You need us to have our perks because we work harder and we need a society that rewards hard work. You need us to be philanthropic so we should be rich. We deserve tax breaks because hey, we pay more taxes. And so it goes, a circular argument.

We saw it in the Senate scandal recently in Canada too. A person may enter politics keen to clean it up, to be transparent and argue for the little guy. But when the job has a huge salary and options for many perks, ones that may even seem traditional loopholes everyone takes, you start to take them. You start to enjoy flying executive class, staying at five star hotels. And you start to think a conference on Canadian poverty should be held for legislators at a five star hotel in the tropics in February.

I am reminded of the lyrics of the Simon and Garfunkel song about the sparrow. She is tired, hungry, needs rest but the oak tree won't shelter her. Does not feel compelled to share space with a mere sparrow. The swan finds the idea of helping absurd. She'd be "laughed at and scorned if the other swans heard." Even the wheat refuses to feed her saying "I need all my grain to prosper and  
grow."

And so we hear the excuses of the haves, trying to justify maintaining the oppression of the have-nots.

We see it in the U.S. where the Affordable Care Act is being criticized for helping the poor. It is speculated that if they could actually afford their health care "more people will choose not to work" or "will choose to work fewer hours." Apparently having to work two jobs to pay for illness in the  
family is a good thing. A recent budget office analysis speculated that employers might reduce employee hours to avoid having to provide them with health care.

So the conclusion is then reached that it is better to keep the poor poor.

The pension plan in Canada is another case of such gamesmanship. A report last week noted that government wants to eliminate early retirement benefits and cost of living increases by 2016. Why? Ostensibly because it costs too much to pay out pensions people can live on. The solution then proposed is for seniors to keep earning, save for their own retirements, keep on slugging. The problem is that many seniors who have put in 45 years at the job may want to quit now, may deserve to quit now, and may have some health problems that make it reasonable for them to quit now. Keeping their pensions low to nudge them to keep working has another agenda, which is supposed to be  
overarching -- to save government money.

We have to look at the continuum of how we treat the 'other,' the one who made choices we did not make. There is after all a difference between respecting someone and tolerating him. In a democracy we are actually supposed to not just put up with others who are different but we are to actually make sure they get their share. We are to fight for their right to  their opinion even if it is not our own and we are to heartily fight for a society that values the underdog because that is a fair society.

We are not there yet. We have many subtle sneaky little ways of justifying keeping the other down. It's like that saying "I could give in to your request now but then I'd never be free of your requests in the future." We are afraid of the precedent it might set if we let gays marry, as if that will open floodgates when in fact only a small minority are gay and an even smaller one wants to marry. We fear being fair because that might encourage the other and that is what scares us.

So we hear arguments that we should not provide income splitting or minimum wage raises or extended health care because then, oh tragedy, people might not be forced to act the way we prefer. Mothers might be home with their children. Seniors might retire.

It's like the 'can't win for losing' trend. Once a person is down, we keep them down. In the U.S. President Obama recently talked to CEOs at McDonalds, Boeing, eBay, Marriot International asking them to please consider hiring those who are often written off. The long term jobless are often scorned as if they are now unemployable, as if their skills are dated. Obama said however that many of the long term unemployed have just had bad luck 'or you were in the wrong industry or you lived in a region of the country that's catching up a little slower." We are however often blind to those dilemmas. Long term jobseekers have real trouble getting even an interview.

There is much to learn about how to argue for equality given that the resistance to it is so strong. But it is not fair resistance, and justice will eventually prevail I am sure. The arguments that I can't help you because I need all the money for me are selfish. It is not better for the  
economy to keep the poor suffering.

It is not best to keep the poor down, however the argument is contorted.

Beverley Smith is a Women's and children's rights activist.

Photo: flickr/twocents

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