Social Policy and Inequality
An important objective of public policy is to improve the social welfare and quality of life for all citizens. However, economic, historical, cultural, and institutional factors create marginalized groups even in the most democratic societies.
Social policy typically refers to public and private programs that seek to improve the welfare of individuals and families. This policy area intersects directly with the issue of inequality, as disparities based on factors such as ethnicity, gender, and income impact the wellbeing and life changes of large segments of the population. More generally, social categories, including those based on religious affiliation and Indigenous or non-Indigenous status, have direct implications for social policies relating to notions of equality, citizenship, and national identity. In addition to the more focused areas of inquiry outlined below, scholars working within this cluster explore a number of basic questions about social policy and its relationship to inequality. Questions asked include:
- How can social programs effectively reduce key forms of social inequalities?
- How can we improve social policy financing to offset territorial disparities?
- How do different types of inequality intersect and what does this mean for social policy practice and research?
- What is the role of private actors in addressing social needs, and how do these collective actors interact with different levels of government?
- What are the particular social policy challenges related to more vulnerable populations such as indigenous peoples, new immigrants, and temporary foreign workers?
- How can we balance a quest for inclusion and basic equality associated with citizenship with fiscal challenges stemming from issues such as population aging and global economic competition?
- How does our constitutional framework including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms impact social policies in ways that may advance or undermine equality?
Fiscal Policy and the Welfare State
In an era of accelerated population aging and global economic competition, the fiscal component of the welfare state is absolutely crucial to grasp the evolution of social programs over time. This fiscal component refers to money collected through general revenues as well as money raised through dedicated payroll contributions, such as the ones associated with the Canada Pension Plan and Employment Insurance. Regarding this second issue, studying the historical development of, and the ongoing controversies over, payroll contributions is a crucial yet understudied aspect of contemporary social policy research. Simultaneously, regarding general revenue financing, how federal money is allocated to the provinces though the equalization program and the health and social transfers is a central topic for researchers and policymakers alike. Designing fairer yet sustainable federal transfers to the provinces is an ongoing policy concern, in Canada and abroad.
Health policy in Canada spans beyond healthcare to encompass a population health perspective in addressing health inequities. This multifaceted sphere brings together numerous and diverse policy issues ranging from global health to indigenous health. The implications of different financing methods, questions of fiscal sustainability and political feasibility are serious issues facing policy makers today. With respect to healthcare, legal developments, the growing global market for healthcare services (both established and unproven) and new technology-based avenues for patient engagement and advocacy raise other and equally challenging questions – particularly given the largely public nature of healthcare in Canada. In terms of population health, widening inequities bring renewed focus to ecological and social determinants of health, with a particular emphasis on vulnerable populations. This complex health and healthcare environment presents challenges as well as opportunities. With a “health in all policies” approach, scholars at JSGS are conducting interdisciplinary, intersectoral and collaborative research to tackle current, imminent and emerging issues in health policy. One of these issues is indigenous health, which is a particularly prominent issue in Saskatchewan and elsewhere in the Canadian prairies.
In our so-called knowledge society, education is more than ever a central aspect of modern social policy, which directly intersects with the issue of social inequality. Yet, in spite of the ongoing public debate about the quality and accountability of public K-12 education across Canada, little is known about the efficiency of the public education system in producing desired outcomes with public resources. These resources amounted to $52 billion in 2010 and recently have been growing at the rate of $2 billion per year. Exploring this issue is necessary to improve the quality of education in Canada, from a social policy standpoint. While exploring this question, JSGS scholars are also interested in issues of child welfare and the relationship between education and public health, among other things. Special attention is given to the educational challenges facing indigenous peoples, especially those living on reserve.
At the time when Canadian society was in the process of modernizing, philanthropic foundations were a major contributor in the building of modern institutions dedicated to culture, education, and health and to social and economic concerns such as poverty, immigration, and housing. Compared to the knowledge produced in the United States, our understanding of philanthropic and foundation grant-making action is limited in range and underdeveloped in academic terms. Today, foundations appear to be of great interest to policy makers as recent budget documents have introduced a number of policies that are either directly or indirectly related to their operation. Foundations have also become the third largest source of funds for supporting charitable organizations. With access to a wealth of quantitative data on Canadian foundations, research in this area aims to expand our understanding of the role that foundations play in our society. Particular focus will be on exploring the impact of foundation giving on the operation of charitable organizations, analyzing foundations’ financial structure to gauge their ability to respond to outside factors, and also on learning about the composition of foundation boards as their structure and internal dynamics can provide useful insights into the decision-making process around foundation grants.
Wage inequality plays a critical role in broader discussions about societal inequality: those with less income have less to save and invest, and much of the wealth inequality between the top 1% and the rest of the population has been suggested to be a result of organizational governance and compensation practices. Social norms that legitimate these practices across private-sector organizations are making inroads into the public sector. Skyrocketing executive compensation in the private sector has been an ongoing source of public discord, generating calls in numerous countries for policy interventions to cap executive compensation. However, these types of interventions may be ineffective, or may have other negative economic and social consequences. Research in this area seeks to better understand the micro-processes of how inequality occurs inside organizations to generate the observed societal patterns of inequality, yielding greater insights into what might be done about it.
The cross-border movement of people is by no means a new phenomenon, but is a pressing topic today. Mobility rights, access to education, social services, employment opportunities, and economic security raise complex social policy and equity-related issues. Considering the recent debate on the role of foreign migrant workers, this issue is especially interesting in the context of a discussion about immigration, as it deals directly with the interaction between transnational mobility and access to basic social rights for non-residents. Finally, the issue of borders and their meaning for inequality and social policy is a major yet understudied problem that must be tackled. Scholars from JSGS are studying these and other topics related to immigration and social policy through international collaborations.