Q&A: David Hulchanski, the U of T professor sounding the alarm on income inequality
David Hulchanski has been thinking about affordability and cities ever since he moved here from upstate New York in the late ’60s (tuition was cheaper in Canada). After decades of research, the University of Toronto professor is currently best known for his series of “Three Cities” reports, which detail the steady disappearance of middle-income neighbourhoods in Toronto and other Canadian cities. Over the years, Hulchanski has emerged as the voice of scientific inquiry into income polarization in Canada, his name regularly invoked in legislative chambers and in the media. We asked him about growing inequality in Toronto, what the loss of the mandatory long-form census means for his research, and making $1.25 an hour at his first job.
How did you become so invested in the idea of inequality?
I was always involved in issues like this, right from high school, and I just continued. As a professor, part of my job is research. In the past ten years we’ve had a couple of very large social science research grants focused on income inequality, income polarization, and how cities and neighbourhoods are changing. This is during a period where income inequality and income polarization are dramatically growing.
And then there was the Occupy movement. Some people say, “oh, what did it achieve?” It put inequality on the broad public agenda. People have been writing about poverty forever, but poverty is about one defined group within society, whereas income inequality is about what is happening to everyone in society.
Why is that an important distinction for you?
It’s moving on from a narrow discussion. I think poverty was a proper discussion in its day, which was, frankly, the ’50s and ’60s. It’s in the ’80s and especially the ’90s that everything changed. We introduced tax cuts and tax breaks to help people who pay a lot of taxes, not those who pay very little taxes. We began redistributing income up. We’re now 25 years into this, so there’s plenty of data to illustrate that the issue is growing income inequality, and the growing redistribution of income from the middle upward, putting more and more people in the lowest group, with minimum wage jobs and all that.
My first job was in the late ’60s as a busboy at Woolworth’s. I made $1.25 an hour. If you inflation-adjust that to today, it’s near $10 an hour. It’s only recently that the minimum wage here reached $10 an hour, and now it’s a touch higher, but all prices are way higher today. I left university with no debt. It was a different world.
Your research has earned a lot of media attention in recent years. How have you managed to do that?
Just by doing our best. You get to know some reporters, you make some judgement calls. The first “Three Cities” report came out in 2007 and covered a period up until 2001. It was my decision to contact the Globe and Mail rather than the Toronto Star to say, “We have this report and here’s what it shows. Are you interested?” They wanted an exclusive and we said yes. They put it on their front page.
Your landmark “Three Cities” research on inequality in Toronto wouldn’t have been possible without the mandatory long-form census, which was eliminated in 2011. What happens if it never comes back?
When we submitted the proposal for the social science research grant we now have, we said that our research may have to be, in effect, historical research covering 1971 to 2006. From ’71 on, the census has been consistent and highly professional, and we can study trends during that period. We still have individual income data from the Canada Revenue Agency, so we can still update income, which is vitally important in the study of inequality and inequality trends. But we can’t link any of that CRA income data to other demographic characteristics—like age, ethnicity or immigration. That’s what has been lost.
Why is Toronto so sharply divided between rich and poor?
Four things explain Toronto’s situation, and while cities can do something, they can’t do much. First is the labour market. Most people work, and most new jobs are not quality paying jobs with benefits. It’s the provinces and the feds that make rules about the labour market, about unionization. Then comes housing, the most expensive budget item for the average person. Housing prices are outpacing inflation. Then there are cutbacks to social benefits. We exited World War II talking about social security. We got rid of all that. Finally, what don’t Canadians talk about? Discrimination. Where do you find newspaper articles, magazine articles, about discrimination in Canada? Housing discrimination, labour market discrimination, education discrimination. Oh, we’re not as bad as the United States? Well, I hope so! But Canadians don’t live in the United States.
So, are you for redistribution from the rich back to the middle?
Out there in society, anybody who mentions redistribution is jumped on, as if it’s some sort of crazy idea. It isn’t. We are doing redistribution right now, and we’ve been doing it for years. How is it that so much more of our national income goes to a minority at the top? It’s larger than the one per cent—it’s the top 10 per cent or 15 per cent. People with good jobs, like tenured professors and other professionals, are doing really well compared to our equivalents twenty years ago, whereas the rest of the population compared to their equivalents twenty years ago are doing way worse. We are engaged in redistribution. We’ve got to stop redistributing income to the top. They don’t need it.