Ann Golden's stern warning of growing rich-poor gap
By Bob Hepburn, Toronto Star, October 31, 2012
Anne Golden rarely pulls her punches.
So it shouldn’t have been a huge surprise when she took advantage of a dinner held in her honour to deliver a stern warning to a roomful of corporate bosses about the widening gap between the rich and poor in Toronto.
Just as firmly, Golden told the business leaders that they’d better step up and do their part to help deal with the fast-growing gap or Toronto could face even greater problems in the coming years.
For many executives, dire talk of pending doom for Toronto surely is familiar and they tune it out.
But when Anne Golden speaks, they listen.
That’s because Golden is someone they respect, a civic activist and city-builder with a well-deserved reputation for excellence, fairness, determination — and for tackling the tough issues.
Toronto is facing major problems, the biggest being the shrinking of the city’s middle class and the “pulling apart of rich and poor,” Golden said at a dinner last week where she was formally named an honorary associate of the Conference Board of Canada, the independent research group’s highest honour.
It was the latest in a string of awards for Golden, who retired in June after serving since 2001 as president of the Conference Board. Before that, she spent 14 years as president of the United Way of Greater Toronto. She is now serving a two-year appointment at Ryerson University as a visiting scholar and adviser.
Golden’s roots as a civic activist are deep. She became involved with the urban reform movement in Toronto in the 1960s and 1970s, joined the fight to stop the Spadina Expressway and gained national prominence for spearheading major reports on the Greater Toronto Area and homelessness.
For some time now, Golden has focused on the rich-poor gap, which is bad for social cohesion, hard to justify and which is rising faster in Canada than in the United States.
But it took guts to turn the acceptance speech, which for many award-winners is a tepid collection of reminiscences, into an all-out plea for the corporate elite to stop sitting on the sidelines when it comes to growing social inequalities in Toronto.
To back up her concerns, she cites statistics showing that in 1970 some two-thirds of the city’s neighbourhoods were middle class. By 2025, only one in five neighbourhoods is expected to be middle class.
At the same time, both poor and rich neighbourhoods are predicted to multiply greatly.
Golden says this widening chasm merits attention because a measure of equality is an important factor in sustaining economic growth and because the overall quality of life, in such areas as health, education and general well-being, is better for everyone in more equal societies.
Inequality also weakens the sense of community and social cohesion and contributes to more violence and crime, she adds.
“Do we want a Canada, and a Toronto, in which the majority of the population falls farther and farther behind, and a small group of Canadians enjoys most of the increase in national wealth?” she asked the business crowd.
Such a scenario is fundamentally unfair, which is why Golden wants business leaders to work together to improve overall equality and prosperity.
As Golden sees it, social cohesion is a cornerstone of metropolitan success.
And she quickly dismisses critics who question the link between social cohesion and prosperity, arguing that “cities are most successful when citizens of all backgrounds and abilities are included in their economic, political and social institutions.”
In recent years, a growing number of CEOs has become involved in civic causes, notably through fundraising and philanthropy.
But more executives must become actively involved and not leave the social policy field open only to “the usual suspects.”
As Golden rightly says, when business leaders “take action on the social agenda, people sit up and take notice” and policy messages “are more surprising and often more effective.”
When she was finished speaking, the CEOs gave Golden a standing ovation.
Golden was pleased, but she would happier if some executives in the room actually listened and took her warning about the rich-poor gap to heart. If they did, they could have a profound and positive impact on this city.