Lowering tide sinks some boats more than others

“A rising tide raises all boats” is a common bromide found in political lexicon. If you ask a liberal, the phrase is meant to illustrate the fact that improving public services benefits the rich as well as the poor. If you ask a conservative, the phrase is meant to illustrate the fact that programs designed to benefit the creation of wealth through private sector innovation will have ripple effects that increases wealth in the population at large. Whichever interpretation you favour (be it the liberal one or the incorrect one), I suppose the point of convergence is that making economic improvements has broad-reaching benefits for many levels of society.

The problem with this aphorism is that it simplifies the ‘rise’ far too much. It gallingly neglects the fact that not all of those boats are raised the same amount. Ideally, programs that are designed to raise boats will do so in a roughly equal way (or, better, in an equitable way based on merit). The reality is that, depending on the nature of the program, some boats get catapulted into the stratosphere while others just bob in place. The increasing disparity in incomes that is currently part of the focus of the Occupy movement is evidence that it is possible to raise some boats while letting others get capsized.

The other side of this problem is that the discrepancies in rise is mirrored when tides drop:

Employment levels among aboriginal people tumbled further and declined over a longer period of time than among the non-aboriginal work force through the downturn. A Statistics Canada paper released Wednesday paints a troubling picture for a demographic group that faced much higher-than-average jobless rates even before the recession. It found the gaps in employment, unemployment and participation rates widened between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people over two years. By last year, the aboriginal jobless rate hit 12.3 per cent, compared with 6.8-per-cent among non-aboriginals.

As I’ve pointed out several times on this blog, there is a major disconnect between quality of life and level of service for First Nations people and other Canadians. For reasons that range from historical abuses to poor political infrastructure to contemporary racist attitudes, Canada’s Aboriginal people lack some of the basic necessities that other Canadians take for granted. Because of the quicksand-like nature of poverty, it is notoriously difficult for Canada’s First Nations communities to develop and prosper without any outside assistance. Given that they are our fellow countrymen, and given that there is a monetary value in eradicating poverty, employment in First Nations communities is of particular concern, as it is a hallmark of overall economic development.

However, what we see from the above figure is that while Canada has seen an overall increase in unemployment since before the economic collapse of 2009, the rise in Aboriginal communities is far greater. That itself should be cause for concern, since the effect of such a drop in employment will hit harder in First Nations communities (one of the pernicious effects of small sample sizes), but what is even more worrying is the fact that while this trend is reversing direction in the general population, it is continuing in First Nations. Whatever actions the Canadian economy has taken, it is resulted in more job losses and a recovery that has disproportionately neglected those in the greatest need of assistance.

The article points to several explanatory mechanisms, including the relatively low seniority of Aboriginal workers, and the segment of the work force experiencing cuts and layoffs (skilled trades and manufacturing as opposed to knowledge-sector work). I found this one particularly intriguing:

Education, it turns out, wasn’t a big buffer against layoffs. From 2009 to 2010, employment rates continued to slide among all education levels for aboriginal workers, with the largest drops among those who had completed postsecondary education and those who had less than high school education, the report said. Many aboriginal youth simply stopped looking for work. Their participation rate in the labour force fell more sharply than for non-aboriginals.

Jeremy Belyea isn’t surprised by the findings. The clinical counsellor who has eight years of postsecondary schooling, including a master’s degree, is looking for work and says many of his educated peers are frustrated by a lack of opportunities. “Some of the difficulties with my friends within the aboriginal community is getting access” to employers, said Mr. Belyea, 31, who is based in Prince George and chair of the Young Indigenous Professionals group. “The barriers come from perceptions on both sides of the table – a lot of aboriginal people don’t feel capable or qualified, so they’re not confident in approaching major companies that they want to work for. On the other hand, they haven’t seen those companies really reaching out.”

Once again we can turn back to our exploration of system justification theory to potentially explain the psychology at work here. When negative ideology about First Nations people becomes internalized, they begin to see themselves as less deserving and less capable. Conversely, those at the top of the power divide (which, in this case, would be non-Aboriginal Canadians) are more likely to feel entitled to what they desire. While we might be tempted to blame malicious or systemic racism at work in company hiring practices, that narrative is not up to the task of adequately explaining why some Canadians stopped looking for work when times got tough. Those who would seek to blame a “culture of entitlement” for lack of participation will have to somehow explain why people who were intrepid and dedicated enough to pursue various levels of education all saw drops in job-seeking.

I have made the comparison between First Nations and black Americans before, pointing to several parallels in their historical and contemporary treatment by the majority. While Canada’s own racist past is quite distinct from that of our southern neighbour, it is worth noting that a parallel process is indeed occurring there as well:

[A Pew Research Center] study, which used data collected by the Census Bureau, found that the median wealth of Hispanic households fell by 66 percent from 2005 to 2009. By contrast, the median wealth of whites fell by just 16 percent over the same period. African Americans saw their wealth drop by 53 percent. Asians also saw a big decline, with household wealth dropping 54 percent. The declines have led to the largest wealth disparities in the 25 years that the bureau has been collecting the data, according to the report. Median wealth of whites is now 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households, double the already marked disparities that had prevailed in the decades before the recent recession, the study found.

Again, it would be foolish to simply attribute this kind of disparity to overt, conscious racism of a few bad apples. While it might be psychologically satisfying to do so, it completely bypasses any worthwhile approach to solving the problem. While systemic racism may have the same overall effect of conscious racial prejudice, the solutions are quite different. Focusing our efforts to eradicate racism on the former to the exclusion of the latter will only serve to fuel our later bafflement when the problems haven’t gone away.

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  1. says

    As someone who grew up in the Dakotas down here in the USA, I have to say that at least you Canadians at least pay attention to the welfare of your indiginous people (I hope that’s a PC term to use). When I was in the Dakotas, some people did care; it was inevitable because of the large reservations in those states. Now that I’m out in Iowa? I hear nothing about how they are doing. 🙁

  2. eNeMeE says

    Now that I’m out in Iowa? I hear nothing about how they are doing.

    Which is pretty much how it happens around here, and anytime it comes up I almost always end up in an argument on account of hearing shit about how they should just get a job or pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

  3. Crommunist says

    I don’t think it’s generally the case that Canadians pay attention to problems facing the First Nations. There are a few who care, a larger group who agitate, and an even larger group that respond through guilt. It’s a frustrating cycle whereby lots of money but almost no oversight or long-term planning goes into addressing major problems. What we end up with is a situation like many African countries, where “aid” goes into these communities – money alone can’t solve the problems. It requires ongoing dialogue between the two groups, and for non-Aboriginal Canadians to actually start listening to what’s being said.

    Shawn Atleo, who is the chief of the National Assembly of First Nations is doing a good job of articulating the specific changes that need to be made. His thinking and mine are very much in line, which is a relief to me.

    I don’t think there is a “PC” term, because Canada has three very distinct groups that all fall under the heading of “Aboriginal” of “indigenous” but have very different needs and opinions. “First Nations” refers to Aboriginal people who are neither Metis nor Inuit, but even that is an oversimplification (kind of like “People of Colour”).

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