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It's Time To Talk Tax Fairness For Canada's Working Poor

05/08/2017 03:36 EDT | Updated 05/08/2017 03:38 EDT

One thing I have learned from my cross-Canada tour is that once you get outside of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Ottawa, it ain't sunny ways. More and more Canadians are feeling that the system is rigged against them. And one of the most disturbing economic indicators is the rising number of working poor.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, March 6, 2017. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Over the last six years, the number of people who identify as working class or poor has shot up from 29 per cent to 44 per cent. This is a dramatic shift in Canadian society, but Justin Trudeau just doesn't seem to get it. He continues to champion tax and trade policies that favour the wealthy. I will shift tax favouritism away from the upper elite in order to give a break to the working poor.

The rise of the working poor has become the proverbial canary in the coal mine, revealing the systemic damage that has been done to Canada's once fair and balanced economy. Finance Minister Bill Morneau shrugs off this growing economic insecurity as the "new normal." He's wrong. It's not normal. It is the result of deliberate policies that has made life easier for those at the top of the economic food chain while leaving everyone else to fend for themselves.

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The sense of an increasingly precarious economy is at the root of most conversations I am having with Canadians on my NDP leadership tour. Whether it's the question of the crushing levels of student debt, the outrageous cost of housing or the inability to find permanent well-paying work, both white-collar and blue-collar, Canadians are being squeezed into a new working class.

This new working class is defined by an endless cycle of contract work without the pensions or benefits that a previous generation took for granted. And this rising precariousness is pushing many more to the margins as the working poor.

If he works full-time at minimum wage he gets no benefit at all.

So how do we respond? New Democrats are often "blue sky" dreamers looking for a new national program that will re-establish fairness in one dramatic move. But as interested as I am in big ideas, I recognize that re-establishing economic equilibrium will require a whole series of tools including specific tax policies, regulatory changes and targeted government investments.

An obvious place to start is the Working Income Tax Benefit (WITB). The other night I spoke with a young man who was unable to pay his rent despite holding down three part-time jobs. In its present form, the WITB program offers nothing to this worker. A worker who makes a mere $1,000 a month, will see their WITB benefit clawed back. If he works full-time at minimum wage he gets no benefit at all.

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Compare this parsimonious deal to the much-ballyhooed tax break Justin Trudeau gave out as part of his "middle-class" budget. Under Justin's plan, anyone making less than $23 an hour gets nothing, while those making $100 an hour get maximum benefit. Talk about stacking the deck in favour of bankers and cabinet ministers.

It doesn't have to be this way. If we add three points of taxation to those making above $250,000 a year and invest this billion-dollar-plus tax cushion in the WITB, we will see a dramatic shift in tax fairness. The new WITB would extend a tax benefit for those working up to $36,000 a year and could help an individual worker or family gain over $1,000 a year in benefit. On top of this, I will push for a $15 an hour minimum wage in all areas under federal jurisdiction.

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Redressing the tax code with such tools will provide a direct benefit to workers trapped in part-time and low-paid work. But such policies will put me at direct odds with the economic vision of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He believes that raising the federal minimum wage to $15 doesn't help anyone and is an economic disincentive. I don't think the prime minister is cynical or uncaring in taking such a position. He just doesn't know what the world looks like to those who make less than $23 or $15 an hour.

In this respect he is very much like a young Ronald Reagan, cheerfully promoting the policies that are destabilizing the very class of people he purports to champion.

It's time we had a clear alternative to the Liberal-Conservative economic juggernaut that has created this unbalanced economic reality. Readjusting the WITB is just one step in the long road towards a balanced economy. As leader of the New Democratic Party, I will bring some class politics and class fairness back to the Canadian political landscape. After all, it's time hardworking Canadians had a government that has their back.

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