Jagmeet Singh on poverty and inequality

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Today, the Toronto Star issued an endorsement of Jagmeet Singh. Obviously I agree that Singh is the best choice to lead the NDP, and I think the editorial board makes a number of interesting points in its endorsement. However, I found this part puzzling:

[Singh] doesn’t appear to have a deep interest in policy issues; during a meeting with the Star’s editorial board it wasn’t clear that he fully appreciates the differences between policies aimed at eradicating poverty and those designed to fight economic inequality. They are different problems that imply very different solutions.

Here is the exchange this passage is apparently referring to:
 
Q: Your platform is quite strong on anti-poverty measures but contains less specifically aimed at inequality, what would you do to address that?
 
A: There is policy we put forward towards poverty reduction focused around those who are the most unequal in society: seniors in poverty, the working poor and Canadians with disabilities. We also coupled that with the Better Work Agenda focusing on people who are in precarious work, as well as how we can build better work. We also want to end unpaid internships with no exceptions and to reinstate the Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act to ensure there are high standards of labour rights protections for workers at the federal level — which would encourage more equity and fairness for workers.

 

In response to the Star’s question, Singh points out that his antipoverty policies are also effective at reducing inequality. They reduce inequality by improving the position of the worst off. Unless specifically aiming at reducing inequality means aiming at reducing inequality while specifically aiming not to achieve any other worthwhile policy goals (an absurd definition, in my view), it strikes me as a mistake to say that Singh’s antipoverty policies are not aimed at reducing inequality.

Perhaps there is another way to interpret what the Star is concerned about. One way to reduce inequality is to improve the relative position of the worst off, and antipoverty policy is one way to achieve this kind of improvement. But inequality between the highest and lowest positions in the economic structure is not the only kind that matters; we are also concerned about how income and wealth are distributed across the range between the highest and lowest positions. Even if the lowest position has been raised as high as possible, we may still have reason to be concerned about inequality because everyone occupies either the highest position or the lowest. We should, I believe, give priority to the eradication of poverty. But we should also, to the furthest extent consistent with this priority, try to to fill out the ranks between the highest and lowest economic positions. And it is true that an exclusive focus on poverty reduction means neglecting this worthwhile goal.

But if this is what the Star means when it talks about inequality, its criticism of Singh still misses the mark. Right after mentioning his proposed poverty reduction measures, Singh mentions policy meant to fight precarious work. Precariousness affects workers beyond the bottom of the economic scale, and it presents an obstacle to those at the bottom trying to move up the scale. It follows that measures against precariousness are in fact measures intended to fight inequality in this second sense of the term. This is also true of ending unpaid internships, which are (if I’m not mistaken) mostly an issue for degree holders with relatively high expectations of future earnings, not the poorest of the poor. And it is true of improved labour rights protections, which secure the positions of workers across the income distribution. Moreover, Singh has also proposed a raft of tax reforms aimed at making the system more progressive, including higher income taxes on the top one percent of earners and a hefty new estate tax.

The Star’s complaint that Singh has not only ignored inequality, but does not even understand what it is, turns out to be completely baseless (not to mention condescending). In my view, Singh’s response to the board’s question demonstrates a stronger grasp of the issues than the board itself.

 

One thought on “Jagmeet Singh on poverty and inequality

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