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Column: Starving students’ salad days are temporary

There’s a reason the term “starving student” has staying power and is a tired cliché — and it’s not just because of alliteration. It’s because “starving student” is a very real stage in many of our lives.

There’s a reason the term “starving student” has staying power and is a tired cliché — and it’s not just because of alliteration.

It’s because “starving student” is a very real stage in many of our lives.

Surviving on student loans, part-time jobs, cheap coffee, pasta, omelettes and draught beer is a kind of rite of passage.

In my journalism-school days, my part-time bank teller job paid $7.35 per hour and I worked only on Saturdays (this was long before banks opened on Sundays or past 4 p.m. on weekdays). I worked several nights a week at a retail chain in the mall as well, where my hourly wage was even lower.

Eventually, I ended up getting a bit more money as a directory-assistance operator throughout the summer months, but my cumulative income was definitely below the poverty line.

When school was on, there were days when I had to choose between putting gas in my $150, rusted-out 1964 Valiant or eating something other than hot-air popcorn. I almost always chose the gas — which represented freedom to me — over food, and not surprisingly, I was a lot slimmer then.

Most of my college pals were in the same boat as me, and yet none of us ever described ourselves as poor.

We knew that our starving-student days were temporary, that this too would pass and our incomes would grow once we stopped being full-time students and started working instead.

And that’s exactly what research from the Fraser Institute has shown in a recent report entitled Measuring Income Mobility in Canada, by Charles Lammam, Amela Karabegovi and Niels Veldhuis.

“Lower-income Canadians are not permanently stuck with a low income — that’s a myth,” said Lammam, who admits to living through starving-student days too. “Where you are today is not where you’re going to be in five, 10 or 20 years down the road.”

The study measured the income mobility of a sample of one million Canadians who were divided into five income groups from lowest to highest over two five-year periods (1996-2001 and 2002-2007) and over a 10-year and a 19-year period (1990-2000 and 1990-2009).

“In all periods, Canadians initially in the lowest income group (the bottom 20 per cent) experienced the greatest relative income increase,” says the report.

Over the decade of 1990 to 2000, 83 per cent of Canadians who started in the bottom 20 per cent moved to a higher-income group.

That increased to 87 per cent over the 19-year period, with 21 per cent of those once lowest-income earners reaching the highest-income group of the top 20 per cent.

For all of those Occupy movement folk, who endlessly spoke about the 99 per cent perpetually being held down at the poverty level at the expense of the greedy one per cent, they need to read this report.

Those whose incomes were in the bottom 20 per cent in 1990 found that their incomes grew 635 per cent by 2009, while those initially in the top 20 per cent of income earners saw their incomes grow at the much slower rate of 23 per cent.

In other words, income disparity in Canada exists, but it’s not immovable and sometimes gets flipped on its head.

Low-income earners move up the income scale and sometimes become top-income earners.

Despite what some would have you believe, the rich are not perpetually getting richer at the expense of the poor getting poorer. Indeed, income inequality is lessening, not increasing, despite the grotesque excesses of a select few corporate CEOs.

In 1990, states the report, the average income of people in the highest income group was 13 times that of people initially in the lowest group. By 2009, those who had been in the highest group in 1990 had an average income only twice that of those who had been in the lowest group in 1990. Looking back at all of my journalism-school buddies, none of us stayed poor.

Some, like me, have had rewarding and somewhat lucrative positions at newspapers (nobody goes into the news business to get rich); others went into television, nursing, politics and public relations.

Our salad days are long behind us. Our bank accounts, standards of living and waistlines are invariably consistent proof of that.

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