01/19/2012 05:22 EST | Updated 03/20/2012 05:12 EDT

Growing Income Gap Generates Little Blame, Poll Suggests

Canadians continue to believe there's a significant income gap between the rich and the poor in their country, a new poll suggests.

But there's no clear agreement on who's to blame for this perceived disparity. And only one Canadian in five thinks large corporate profits are bad.

Highlights from the annual Focus Canada national public opinion survey by the Environics Institute were released at the Canada 2020 conference in Ottawa on Thursday afternoon. The full report will be available in March.

Surveys prior to 2011 also suggested Canadians perceived a significant and growing gap between their country's richest and poorest citizens. But in light of the "Occupy" movement's recent campaign to raise awareness of the vast income differences between extremely wealthy individuals (defined by Occupy protest participants as the "top 1 per cent") and everyone else, this year's survey asked about this particular disparity.

Two-thirds of respondents said the gap between the wealthy and everyone else is larger than it has ever been historically. Only 27 per cent said the gap remains the same, while only four per cent said the gap was now smaller.

Environics suggests that these findings mirror the opinions of Americans found in a November 2011 survey for the Washington Post.

Respondents to the Canadian survey did not identify a single clear cause of this growing gap.

Roughly three-quarters (74 per cent) cited reasons such as tax breaks for the rich (18 per cent), capitalism helping the rich (14 per cent), regional or structural disparities in the economic system (10 per cent), government policies (7 per cent) and fewer middle-class jobs (six per cent.)

Only seven per cent attributed the growing gap to "basic greed and speculation." Five per cent suggested the wealthy work harder and earn what they make.

International comparisons

Compared to other countries, most respondents believed the income gap in Canada was smaller (44 per cent) or roughly the same (35 per cent) as the gap in the U.S.

Respondents were most likely to see Canada as having similar income disparities as European countries (40 per cent), versus 20 per cent who thought the gap was bigger in Canada and 17 per cent who felt it was smaller in Canada in comparison with countries such as France or Germany.

Close to half of respondents (46 per cent) believed the gap was smaller in Canada than in developing countries such as China or India. One-quarter thought the income gap was bigger in Canada than in developing countries.

Ambivalence prevails on corporate profits

Despite the attention paid by the Occupy movement to "corporate greed" and perceived high corporate profits, this latest poll suggests the number of Canadians opposed to corporate profits is going down: only 21 per cent said corporate profits were bad in 2011, down four points since the 2006 survey. One in three respondents felt corporate profits were good.

Forty per cent in this Environics survey were ambivalent on corporate profits, seeing them as neither good nor bad.

Negative opinions of corporate profit were more likely among Atlantic Canadians, older respondents, lower-income Canadians and NDP supporters.

Conservative supporters were most likely to have a positive view of corporate profits.

Corporate tax rates were an election issue in 2011, when a majority Conservative government was elected on a platform which championed lowering, not raising corporate taxes.

Who should fix the gap?

More than eight in 10 Canadians suggested their governments have a responsibility to do something to reduce the gap between the wealthy and the rest of Canadians.

When asked whose job it is to address income disparities, a clear majority agreed strongly (52 per cent) or somewhat (30 per cent) that governments should actively find ways to shrink the gap.

Atlantic Canadians and Quebecers, as well as NDP or Bloc Québécois supporters, are the most likely to hold this view.

Respondents across all income brackets agreed that finding solutions for income disparities is the government's responsibility, but top income-earners were less likely to agree strongly.

Optimism evident

Despite these perceived gaps, Canadians remain relatively optimistic about their own personal situations.

Environics asked Canadians about their expectations for their personal finances in 2012. Nearly half (47 per cent) felt their finances would improve, while 20 per cent expected things to remain the same. Optimism was strongest in the Prairie provinces and Quebec, and among younger respondents.

2010 Environics findings suggested most Canadians were very satisfied (29 per cent) or somewhat satisfied (53 per cent) with their standard of living. Almost half (46 per cent) said in 2010 that their standard of living had improved compared to 18 per cent saying it was worse.

The 2010 findings were up from the results of the 2008 survey, held during the early days of the financial meltdown.

The Focus Canada 2011 survey was conducted using telephone interviews between Nov. 21 and Dec. 14, 2011. A representative sample of 1,500 Canadians aged 18 and over were polled. The results may be considered accurate to within plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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