It's amazing that short-term memory loss is so common in today's knowledge economy.
There is a strange amnesia when it comes to policy ideas from before the Dickensian 90s, innovations that went well beyond anything in last week's provincial Liberal budget.
It's true that the raft of anti-poverty measures in the budget, responding to a first-class campaign by the NDP, the Labour Council and the Toronto Star, went further than any government across North America has gone for at least a decade.
With boosts to the minimum wage, social assistance and child support, the budget signals that the mean 90s a decade dominated by free trade, competition and market-worship are almost over. But not quite.
It seems glaringly obvious that some pieces are missing, and this is related to the lingering neo-con aftertaste.
Before the 90s, governments knew how to stimulate the economy strategically and understood there was another way society could reward its members besides social assistance levels and minimum wage laws. I'm speaking here of the concept of the "social wage" benefits we enjoy simply because we are citizens or residents, improvements that raise the tone and quality of life for the entire population.
You have to know how social policy worked in the happy (and we once thought conservative) days of the 1950s and 60s to understand how much we have lost. Those were years when the number of people who lived in poverty was cut in half, from two-thirds of the population during the 1940s to one-third by the 60s.
Since then, we've barely held the line, despite massive increases in productivity, economic growth and wealth.
One economic reality that supported good social policy in the good old days was good wages. In the Scarborough neighbourhood where I grew up, close to a series of high-wage factories known as the Golden Mile (now a phalanx of box stores and fast-food restaurants), the dads mostly worked at semi-skilled and skilled blue collar jobs and the moms mostly worked full-time at home.
Thanks to unions that set the standards for most of Toronto's then-plentiful manufacturing plants, one blue collar salary in a family paid enough for a home in the burbs and a comfortable if conventional life.
A relentless law of gravity has since taken over the economy. Beginning in the 1970s, it took two incomes for working families to keep up with the 50s. The big tumble downward hit the public sector first. In the early 1980s, a huge swath of Toronto's well-paid provincial and federal government jobs went to places like Welland, Sudbury, Elliot Lake and Thunder Bay, areas hit by closures and cutbacks in mining, logging and factory operations.
Another trend was the increase in the number of Torontonians employed by non-government organizations and social agencies, earning about 60 per cent of the wages of the government workers they often replaced.
To this day, executive directors at most of Toronto's dynamic social service agencies make about as much as government policy aides right out of university, while NGO program directors' salaries are equivalent to those of government clerks. That's a big hole in the social safety net.
Well-paid private sector jobs took the hit after free trade deals in the late 1980s and early 90s gutted the manufacturing sector. Starving artists now live where Spadina once provided unionized jobs in the garment trades for new immigrants, and other industrial sites have been cleared for inner- city Pleasantville housing for knowledge workers.
People who once held industrial jobs now work at McJobs the sector of the restaurant trade most upset by new minimum wage laws and in what's called the "concierge economy," non-mechanized Blackberries who help the affluent cope with their busy schedules.
The muscle of mid-20th-century social policy, a mainstream working class that enjoyed good wages and 40-hour weeks and made up the bulging middle in the social hierarchy, has been displaced.
No positive social policy can be sustained until that sector is brought back. In my opinion, two job areas can be encouraged by deliberate policy: the food sector, the largest base of both industrial and service jobs, and the energy efficiency sector, providing jobs for skilled blue collar workers who earn their keep by saving people money. Investments to kick-start these sectors are crucial to social as well as environmental policy, but they are nowhere in sight.
The "conservative" 1950s and 60s had another thing going the social wage. Medicare and first-rate public education, made free through high school and extended to grade 13 to provide the equivalent of a free year at university, became fixtures.
The social wage, over and above minimum wages or welfare, was the main support system for the social safety net of the 1950s. Improvements in the social wage can deliver more value for less money than market earnings provided by minimum wages (which really are minimum) and social assistance.
But there seems to be no move to extend this idea. Imagine, for example, the social equality impact of giving free transit passes to students. These have a cash value of $76 a month expensive for a family on limited income but cheap if the government buys in bulk, thus giving youth of all income levels the chance to experience the city. Offering cultural opportunities as part of the social wage as in free admission for youth to museums, art galleries, science centres, rec centres and other learning-recreation venues outside of prime time is the stuff of which social mobility through education is made.
Such moves can boost the living standard of youth in low-income families faster than inevitably sluggish hikes to social assistance and the minimum wage. Other improvements in the social wage, like extending medicare to cover dental care, or low-cost school meals, have the additional value of reducing long-term costs absorbed by the public at a later time.
But the idea of these kinds of strategic benefits harkens back to the days before right-wingers taught people to blame all waste on government, as in "That's government for you," and to forget that much waste, exploitation and pollution come from the market. "That's the market for you," alas, has never quite made it as a figure of common speech despite Conrad Black and Enron and more.
It's a sad commentary that we have so much to learn from 50 and 60 years ago, but that's one way of assessing just how much we were robbed of during the 90s.