Author Tags: Non-Fiction
The rich get richer and the poor get poorer in British Columbia, as they do in much of the world. As the richest few tally their billions, the poorest seek the doorway that will be their home for the night. Those in between work more and struggle not to fall deeper into debt. Nowadays to discuss poverty, the correct term to use seems to be income inequality. It's been the subject of several important and much-discussed books in recent years--and now there's one for B.C.
In A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour, 2015), Andrew MacLeod interviews “economists, politicians, policy-makers and activists, as well as those living on the edge” to illustrate the consequences of this monetary inequality.
MacLeod's title is an oblique reference to the slogan for a B.C. Liberal government ad campaign, "The Best Place on Earth", a public relations campaign to hype the province prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics.
He talks to “a single parent whose child support payments are clawed back by the government; a 25-year-old struggling to live on disability payments who won’t share his identity for fear of repercussions from the system; a security guard who wasn’t given bathroom breaks, didn’t drink water at work and eventually had to have a kidney removed as a result of severe dehydration.” MacLeod examines the public policy that has contributed to this economic disparity, and encourages British Columbians to consider how our society can be more fair for everyone. The book has been shortlisted for the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness.
Andrew MacLeod has been the Legislative Bureau Chief for TheTyee.ca website since November, 2007. Prior to working for the Tyee he was a staff news writer for Monday Magazine from 2002 to 2007 in Victoria. While obtaining an English degree from the University of Victoria, he had been a co-editor of the UVic student newspaper The Martlet in 1992-93.
His work has been referred to in the BC legislature, Canadian House of Commons and senate. He won an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies award for news writing (2006) and was a finalist for a Western Magazine Award for best article in BC and the Yukon (2007). His reporting has also appeared in the Georgia Straight, BC Business, 24 Hours, Victoria's Focus Magazine, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Detroit’s MetroTimes, Portland’s Willamette Week and elsewhere.
Born in Montreal on July 1, 1972, MacLeod grew up in Toronto and came to B.C. in August of 1991. He now lives with his family in Victoria.
A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, 2015) $22.95 978-1-55017-704-6
Reviews of the author's work by BC Studies:
A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia.
Bring back the tar ‘n’ feathers
Andrew MacLeod's muckraking facts about income inequality (ie. poverty) in British Columbia are just in bad taste.
Nobody wants to read about poverty. Nobody wants to know that in 2012, the bottom half of the B.C. populace held only 3.1 percent of the wealth.
So let’s ignore the rest of this article...
Ever since slave owners in the United States wrote a constitution that declared all men are equal, Americans have been delusionary about themselves. And B.C. is a bit like the U.S. We comfortably and routinely believe in our superiority. This unites us; it makes us strong.
Hey, self-satisfaction is a good thing. For years our license plates boasted Beautiful British Columbia and our previous premier, before he escaped to a safe job in England, confidently boasted B.C. was the best place on the planet.
Now party pooper Andrew MacLeod has come along with A Better Place On Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour $22.95) that examines the ugly truth about wealth and poverty in B.C.
We think British Columbians should be free to remain safely inside our blissfully self-satisfied cocoons of ignorance and superior physical fitness. We think everyone should be free to indiscriminately toss around the term world class.
The public is advised to be on the look for Andrew MacLeod, a neasayer of the worst magnitude.
The public is advised to be on the lookout for Andrew MacLeod, a naysayer of the worst magnitude.
Writing a bunch of articles about widening inequality in The Tyee is fine. Mr. MacLeod can fritter away his pique all he likes on the internet. But putting his research into an actual book that was initially going to be subtitled Among the Haves and Have Nots in Super Unequal British Columbia, well, that’s going too far. In Hong Kong, surely they would DO SOMETHING to gag Mr. MacLeod.
Didn’t most of our B.C. publishers wisely and quietly stop producing critical books with political content years ago? A Better Place On Earth amounts to a backward step. We believe even poor people in B.C. would much prefer not to know about how badly off they are compared to people in other provinces. We should just continue to accentuate the positives like life expectancy. (If B.C. was a country we would be among the top ten in the world.) Everybody wants to live here, right? That’s all we really need to know.
So who does this Andrew MacLeod person think he is spreading these malicious truths. Every year we are certain the Vancouver Canucks are going to win the Stanley Cup. That’s how we go about our lives here. Delusion is a good thing. That’s why we are pretty sure you do not want to pick up B.C. BookWorld and learn B.C. is the worst province for inequality in Canada.
Mr. MacLeod has the gall to let us know:
By 2012, the top ten percent in B.C. held 56.2 percent of the wealth, a greater concentration than anywhere else in Canada.
With 13.2 percent of Canada’s population, B.C. is home to 14.6 percent of the people living in poverty.
Between 1981 and 2012, B.C. registered the biggest drop in Canada in the percentage of workers who were members of unions, dropping from 43 percent of the workforce to 30 percent
In 2012, the bottom half of the B.C. populace, about 2.25 million people, held only 3.1 percent of the wealth (the poorest ten percent actually owed more than they owned), while the top 10 percent, some 450,000 people, held 56.2 percent of the wealth.
Real estate in B.C. — particularly in Vancouver — has been identified as the main factor in generating the most severe economic divide between rich and poor in the country.
As if such statistics were not enough effrontery, Mr. MacLeod goes out of his way to tell us that increasingly experts realize that higher rates of inequality will require more prisons and police and will generate higher rates of mental illness, drug abuse and other social problems.
Mr. MacLeod is particularly critical about the cutbacks to welfare rates made by the Liberals since they came to power. We are told the number of children living in poverty in B.C. increased by more than 50,000 from 2010 to 2012.
Such muckraking with facts and figures is thoroughly out of synch with the times. Is it really in the public interest for citizens to know Jim Pattison’s net worth in 2013 has been estimated at more than $7 billion?
Bring back the tar ‘n’ feathers, we say.
No politics, please, we’re new British Columbians.
Ryga winner speaks for have-nots
from BCBW (Summer 2016)
Having grown up very poor in rural Alberta, George Ryga would surely approve of this year’s decision to present the twelfth annual George Ryga Award for Social Awareness to Andrew MacLeod.
MacLeod’s A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour, 2015) examines how and why the rich in B.C. are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. The Victoria journalist remains outspoken about economic disparity.
“Christy Clark became premier promising to put families first,” he says, “but five years later British Columbia continues to have one of the worst records in Canada for child poverty.
“B.C.’s economic growth may be leading Canada as the provincial government frequently reminds us, but it’s little comfort to the many people who are struggling to afford a place to live, coping with high debt payments and receiving stagnating wages.
“Both Justin Trudeau’s 2015 federal election win in Canada and the success of Bernie Sanders’ campaign in the United States have made it clear that a large number of voters in both countries are looking for a fairer deal.
“B.C. politicians should be paying close attention to the trend and making their pitches to voters in the 2017 provincial election accordingly.”
In A Better Place on Earth, MacLeod interviews economists, politicians, policy-makers and activists, as well as “those living on the edge” to illustrate the consequences of increasing monetary inequality in B.C.
MacLeod grew up in Toronto and came to B.C. in 1991. While obtaining an English degree from the University of Victoria, MacLeod was a co-editor of the UVic student newspaper The Martlet in 1992-93. Later he was a staff news writer for Monday Magazine from 2002 to 2007.
Runners-up for this year’s Ryga award:
David Boyd for The Optimistic Environmentalist: Progressing Toward a Greener Future (ECW, $19.95)
Larry Gambone for No Regrets (Black Cat Books, $18)
Chris and Josh Hergesheimer for The Flour Peddler (Caitlin, $24.95)
Carrie Saxifrage for The Big Swim: Coming Ashore in a World Adrift (New Society, $16.95)
David Suzuki for Letters to My Grandchildren (Greystone, $27.95)
Judges were librarian Jane Curry (Branch Head, Kerrisdale Branch, Vancouver Public Library), author Trevor Carolan (professor of English and Asian Religion at University College of the Fraser Valley) and author George Johnson (professor of English at Thompson Rivers University, and a long-time chair of the Global and Community Action Committee at Kamloops United Church). Supported by Yosef Wosk and Vancouver Public Library, the Ryga Award is administered by Pacific BookWorld News Society.
Inspired by Summerland playwright George Ryga, the first annual Marginal Arts Festival will be held at venues throughout Summerland on the Labour Day long weekend, September 1-4. One headliner will be Ryga’s eldest son, Campbell Ryga, an internationally-known jazz musician who apprenticed with the legendary Miles Davis sideman George Coleman. See marginalarts.ca
Also, George Ryga’s sister, Anne Chudyk, along with her husband Ted Chudyk, have established two annual $1,000 Anne & Ted Chudyk Memorial Awards in Memory of George Ryga for fulltime Okanagan College students interested in creating awareness of social issues.
The Best Place on Earth?
GEORGIA STRAIGHT COVERAGE BY CHARLIE SMITH, JUNE 2016
If you're wondering why there's more focus on income inequality than there was 10 years ago, give some of the credit to authors.
In the United States, University of California, Berkeley professor Robert Reich, has written three terrific books in recent years: Saving Capitalism, Aftershock, and Beyond Outrage. With his deep historical insights and imaginative policy prescriptions, Reich laid the intellectual foundation for the Bernie Sanders campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
A Canadian duo, journalist Linda McQuaig and Osgoode Hall law professor Neil Brooks, added a Canadian perspective with their brilliant 2010 book, The Trouble With Billionaires: How the Super-Rich Hijacked the World and How We Can Take It Back. It showed how tycoons like Bill Gates have enhanced their wealth enormously by piggy-backing on the ideas of others.
Two years later came the release of Chrystia Freeland's Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. Freeland later became a Liberal MP and her book undoubtedly influenced her government's decision to jack up personal income taxes for high-income earners and reduce personal income taxes for the middle class.
In the United Kingdom, Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett coauthored The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. Released in 2009, it demonstrated that health, education, obesity, violence, and other measures were worse even for the rich in countries with greater inequality.
French economist Thomas Piketty's 696-page Capital in the Twenty-First Century also enhanced people's understanding about income inequality. It was an unexpected bestseller in 2014.
You can add a B.C. author to this list. Andrew MacLeod's A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing), is a stellar examination of how Canada's westernmost province has become a Canadian bastion of class differences.
MacLeod, the legislature bureau chief for the Tyee, was recently named winner of the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature. He'll pick up his prize and give an accceptance speech at the Vancouver Public Library on June 29. (Jeanette Armstrong, winner of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award, will also speak at the library that evening.)
Like the other titles mentioned above, A Better Place on Earth offers a bounty of data to show how many folks are being left behind as the rich get richer. It also includes a nuanced look at why poverty is more prevalent among women, indigenous people, and refugees.
For readers, the inescapable conclusion is that B.C. has the greatest level of inequality in Canada. Fully half of the kids in B.C. households headed by a single parent are living in poverty, according to the book.
It also reports that from 1999 to 2012, the poorest 10 percent of British Columbians went even deeper into the red. Their net worth fell from -$1,400 to -$10,700. The richest 10 percent of British Columbians, on the other hand, held 56.2 percent of the wealth in 2012.
Stories bring poverty to light
What makes MacLeod's book so readable are stories of everyday British Columbians coping with poverty. Through these tales, the author shows how rules imposed on them are so much harsher than those faced by more privileged members of society.
There's Victoria resident Ted Hawryluk, whom MacLeod reports has been on a waiting list for social housing for 18 years. Hawryluk has a dog, smokes, and already has a roof over his head, which put him at the back of the line. After paying his rent and utility bills from his $906 monthly provincial disability-assistance, he has about $56 left to live.
At the root of the problem is the social-assistance allowance for housing within that $906 disability envelope: at $375 per month, it doesn't come close to matching his rent. MacLeod tells readers that the shelter maximum for single people on disability assistance has remained frozen at $375 per month since 1998.
Hawryluk is well aware that provincial and federal politicians receive far more generous housing allowances.
"The government can come up with a whole lot of money for people who are already rich, but when it comes to the actual poor they're not even pegging us at inflation," Hawryluk tells MacLeod.
Then there's former long-haul truck driver Rochelle Berman, who paid taxes for three decades before becoming disabled. MacLeod reports that she was waking up with migraine headaches and suffering depression and stomach problems because she couldn't make ends meet on the monthly provincial disability payments of $906.
MacLeod contrasts that with the income of the minister responsible for social development at the time, Vancouver-Langara Liberal MLA Moira Stilwell. MacLeod reports in his book that Stilwell, a doctor, "refused requests for raises to assistance rates".
MacLeod points out that taking this post, Stilwell strongly advocated for Canadian medical students studying abroad. As a minister of state, she even wrote a report objecting to barriers to these students obtaining residency positions in Canada.
Stilwell's son happened to be one of those Canadian medical students who was educated abroad. According to MacLeod, this was "something she had failed to mention in interviews with me on the subject or to minister [Mike] de Jong when she was working on the report for him". (On June 17, Stilwell announced that she won't seek reelection next year.)
A Better Place on Earth also outlines strict rules around social assistance and the multitude of reasons why people have stopped receiving benefits. Shortly afterward, MacLeod launches into a detailed dissertation on lavish spending on food and drinks by a provincial Crown corporation, B.C. Hydro, at Union of B.C. Municipalities conventions.
"Most mayors and councillors, and the other convention attendees, aren't exactly the 1 percent," MacLeod acknowledges in his book, "but by and large they're doing okay and it remains unclear to me why the public should be buying them gourmet treats."
B.C.'s inequality ranks worse than other provinces
Now for more numbers. A Better Place on Earth points out that in 2012, B.C. had the highest median net worth for "family units" of all provinces in Canada at $344,000, according to Statistics Canada.
Those B.C. families in the bottom 20 percent had a median net worth of just $1,100 in 2012. This was lower than their median net worth in 1999, which means they're falling even further behind.
The top 60 percent, on the other hand, saw their net worth rise by 60 percent over the same period, MacLeod reports. And the top 20 percent of B.C. family units had a net worth of about $1.4 million in 2012.
In addition, McLeod cites TD research showing that for more than a decade leading up to 2010, B.C. had the highest debt-to-income ratio, highest debt-service costs, greatest sensitivity to rising interest rates, and lowest average savings rate.
The bank pointed out that B.C. was the only province in the negative with a savings rate, reaching -4.2 percent in 2010, compared to a national average of 3.9 percent. Is it any wonder that we saw a proliferation of payday loan companies and a sharp rise in homelessness in the Lower Mainland during the first decade of the 21st century?
Public protests like this one organized by Acorn B.C. have put pressure on the government to offer a better deal for single parents.
Like other books on inequality mentioned above, MacLeod suggests many policy proposals near the end. They include such things as increasing the minimum wage, taxing 100 percent of capital gains, introducing a maximum wage and an inheritance tax, improving pensions, offering more support for refugees, raising welfare rates, spreading work around, and adopting a provincial antipoverty strategy.
But then there's a kicker: MacLeod adds a transcript of a legislative debate between NDP MLA Michelle Mungall and Premier Christy Clark, which took place on April 9, 2014.
Mungall mentioned six B.C. single mothers with disabilities whose child-support payments were being clawed back by the government. The moms were all in the gallery on that day watching the proceedings. And the NDP MLA wanted the premier to explain how taking away these child-support payments was putting their families first.
Clark's sidestepped the question by responding that the government is "very much focused on growing the economy as a way to make sure that we look after people in the province for the long term". The premier also mentioned that her government had raised the minimum wage three times and has "one of the lowest overall tax levels".
Mungall fired back, asking again why the government wouldn't end the clawback.
Clark's response was that Canada is a rich country and that B.C. is a rich province, but the "sad fact" is that not everyone is able to "fully participate in that wealth". It was pretty lame defence after all the material MacLeod had provided leading up to that point.
Two months before MacLeod's book was scheduled to be released, the B.C. government finally decided to end the clawback of child-support payments from single parents on social assistance. It may be a coincidence. But you can also be sure that some senior government officials were aware of A Better Place on Earth's pending publication.
The fact is that B.C. is ruled by a premier, a deputy premier (Rich Coleman), and a finance minister (de Jong) who are ideologically committed to austerity regardless of the economic climate. As MacLeod documents, this is increasing hardship for hundreds of thousands of poor British Columbians at the same time it's helping the wealthy become even richer.
The title, A Better Place on Earth, riffs on a B.C. Liberal government ad campaign called "The Best Place on Earth", which promoted the province in advance of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Books are important tools to help frame the public debate, raise awareness, and ultimately bring about change in the world. Especially really good books like A Better Place on Earth. It belongs on any bookshelf beside the works of Robert Reich and Linda McQuaig.