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Tackling Poverty in an Age of Technological Disruption

On April 11, CPA Ontario was pleased to host an important discussion about developing solutions to address rising poverty in Ontario, which is being compounded by technological disruption.

We would like to thank Farah Nasser, an anchor at Global News, for moderating our discussion, and extend our thanks to our esteemed panelists for sharing their insights in a thought-provoking discussion: Armine Yalnizyan, President, Canadian Association for Business Economics; Karl Baldauf, Vice President, Policy & Government Relations, Ontario Chamber of Commerce; Marlene Chiarotto, Director, Program Delivery & Integration, Prosper Canada; and Sean Speer, Munk Senior Fellow, Fiscal Policy, Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

Three key themes emerged from their discussion:

Business confidence is low in Ontario, compounded by the minimum wage increase

Clear trends are emerging to suggest business confidence is low in Ontario. Small businesses are not taking risks or taking chances – either on themselves, or their communities. Recruitment has slowed, with 45,000 fewer jobs being created than expected to-date in 2018. These are some of the poorest job numbers in decades.

Our panelists’ debate over the impact of minimum wage was passionate and polarized. While all agreed the minimum wage needs to increase (five million people make less than $15.00/hour in Ontario), some believed the unprecedented speed that change has been implemented is having a significantly negative impact on small businesses. Others argued gloomy economic forecasts are largely hypothetical, and a higher minimum wage could have a long-term positive effect on wealth creation and consumer confidence.

It will take more than income to close Ontario’s growing wage gap

Over the past twelve months, alongside raising the minimum wage, the Ontario government introduced a basic income pilot. Our panelists debated whether this was enough to close the wage gap. It was agreed a basic income gives the community access to education and can give low income people access to public transit to get to work – put simply, it gives them a fighting chance. However, more income is only a small part of the solution. It’s also about having good assets and savings, and managing personal debt – and there is a significant role for private sector businesses to play here.

Technology brings significant change – but with change, comes opportunity

In the face of a changing technological landscape, the “biggest challenge of our time” will be ensuring people have the skillset to face the coming changes in their professions. Skills education will be vital. 65 percent of children currently in elementary school are going to have jobs in the future that don’t exist now – and while this holds exciting promise, low-income workers must not be miss out on the opportunities because of a lack of skills in our province. 

Going one step further, it was argued the creative aspect of technological disruption is being underestimated, because with change also comes immense opportunity. Technology will open doors in a range of fields, from healthcare to education, for people living in Ontario with the right skillsets. We’re already seeing technology generating new streams of revenue. Through the rise of platforms such as AirBnB and Uber, people can make money using their homes or their cars. This is not without its pitfalls, however; income in the ‘gig economy’ can be volatile – a pressing problem for low-income workers in Ontario. More so than ever, it is important to ensure income-boosting benefits are being accessed by those who need them the most.

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The debate between our panelists was wide-ranging and informative. There were many conflicting points of view, but one thing that was agreed on was the role of industry in addressing the problem. While the income gap in Ontario continues to grow amidst increasing levels of income volatility, greater participation from the business community and constructive engagement with government and other third parties will be crucial to fixing the problem. The onus is now on us all to find new ways to help to break down barriers to social and economic inclusion for vulnerable Ontarians throughout the province and build their financial well-being.