Hope for change - Kareem Kudus reflects on volunteering with Gen Squeeze

Everything seems like it’s going wrong, and there doesn’t seem to be anything that I can do about it.

You might have thoughts like this running through your mind quite often. I know I used to.

In this article, I’d like to tell you about my experience of joining Generation Squeeze to do something about the problems I spent so long observing. I hope that learning about what we’ve been up to – and the progress we have seen so far – give you hope that change is possible. And that you can take part in it!

My change-making journey with Gen Squeeze 

One of the many hobbies I picked up during the pandemic was trying to make sense of the world we live in. Why were home prices rising so quickly? Why was “hallway medicine” becoming normal? Why did it feel like things weren’t working out the way they were supposed to? Going to school and getting a good job were no longer enough for young people to live a comfortable life, the way it was for previous generations. I felt like our society was moving in the wrong direction, and I had no idea why. 

These questions led me to search for answers. As someone with a background in finance, I decided to take a close look at the construction of our inflation gauge, the Consumer Price Index (CPI). I knew that housing costs had been rising across Canada for decades, yet all the while inflation (according to CPI) remained low. Then food and fuel costs began to go up, and inflation rose along with them. Why didn’t skyrocketing housing trigger higher inflation readings, but increases in other costs did?  

I was shocked to learn the answer was that CPI doesn’t account for the biggest cost many Canadians are facing – the cost of acquiring a home. The resulting systematic underestimation of inflation enabled years of ultra-low interest rates, which in turn helped drive our housing market out of control.

Eventually, my exploration of these topics led me to an information session hosted by Generation Squeeze founder Paul Kershaw. I was thrilled to hear that not only was he already aware of the issues with CPI, but he’d also been working for many years on solving the very problems I was concerned with. This was something I had to become a part of!

Within my first few months at Generation Squeeze, we managed to set up a meeting with Statistics Canada, the Government agency responsible for measuring inflation. My first thought was: that wasn't so hard! Why is everyone always complaining that nothing ever gets done? I was going to get this CPI stuff sorted out in no time! 

Of course, that’s not what happened. The Statistics Canada leaders we met with weren’t very receptive to our concerns, and we left the meeting without any new commitments to better measure housing inflation. So… back to the drawing board to find other ways to motivate change.

We reached out to the offices of the federal Ministers in charge of the institutions complicit in this issue: Minister Freeland who’s responsible for the Bank of Canada, and Minister Champagne who’s in charge of Statistics Canada. If Statistics Canada wasn’t eager to hear our suggestions directly, perhaps we could apply some external pressure. 

These meetings went well. The Ministers’ policy advisors were sympathetic to our concerns and pledged to help support our efforts in resolving the mismeasurement of inflation. I’m pleased to report that the dialogue is ongoing and that we’re hopeful to see some tangible results soon. In fact, it's starting to seem like we’re getting through to Statistics Canada. In a recent inflation report, there was an entire section explaining why shelter costs are accounted for correctly in CPI. Though we disagree with their conclusions, it’s nice to see some discussion starting around this issue.

We still have a long way to go in fixing our inflation measurement problem – not to mention all the others that Generation Squeeze is working on. But what I’ve seen so far has been motivating. It’s confirmed for me that change is possible, and that organizations like Gen Squeeze can help to create it.

We get the politics that we deserve 

So what did I learn from my experience collaborating with Gen Squeeze on trying to change how we measure housing inflation? 

One key takeaway is the importance of public policy for so many things that matter to all of us. Though it might not be the most fun to think about, the policies settled on by our governments dictate countless aspects of our lives.

It’s easy to blame “usual suspects” for our problems, like “greedy rich people”, “profiteering corporations”, or “self-serving politicians”. And yes, in certain cases there are people who fail to act in the best interest of the public at large. 

But we also need to ask ourselves: what allowed these people to behave in this way? Each of us has a say in who’s elected, and in shaping the priorities elected officials pursue on our behalf. That gives us the power to decide who is in charge and the rules by which our society is governed. 

This means that there’s reason for hope. If public policies are within our control, then it’s our collective decisions that got us into this mess. And since we created the mess, we also have the power to clean it up and solve the problems we’ve helped to create. That’s what motivates me to continue to ally with Generation Squeeze.

Progress requires an engaged and informed public

Another key lesson that my experience with Gen Squeeze has underscored is how important it is for each of us to advocate for what we want, and what we think is right. 

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a theme gaining some traction in my social circles – moving away, to Alberta, Halifax, Texas, or some other place where life is more affordable. Most people aren’t serious when they fantasize about making a break for it, leaving behind the stress of acquiring a home at a reasonable price. But it’s telling that many of us are having the same dreams. Indeed, I even find myself getting caught up in these thoughts.

But is moving away from all of our friends and family, giving up everyone that is important to us, really the price we should have to pay? It might be feasible for some, but for various reasons, many of us aren’t going anywhere. If we can't flee, we have no choice but to try and fix things here at home. Otherwise, we resign ourselves to surrendering to the economic and political tides, whichever way they might flow.

The saying is “fight or flight”, right? We’ve evolved to act when faced with adversity, but that’s precisely what we’re not doing when we check out of our political processes. Many of us have become apathetic towards politics – just look at Ontario’s record low voter turnout in the 2022 provincial election. But whether or not you vote, there's no hiding from the influence that government policy and spending decisions have on your life. Democracy continues, regardless of whether or not you participate. 

Seemingly boring and obscure policies (like how we measure inflation) can have a huge impact on our lives – as we’ve all witnessed of late, thanks to rising interest rates. Without people interested in how these policies are made, and people who pay attention to the results, there’s no cost to our political leaders for maintaining a suboptimal status quo. Participating in our democracy is one way to hold them to account, and make it clear when we expect more. Making change in this way might be a slow, arduous process, but it's our best option.

An immediate step you can take to become a more involved and engaged citizen is to join the Generation Squeeze network. Our power to win policy improvements grows with the size of our network. Ask your friends and family to join too so together we can make Canada work for all generations.

Kareem Kudus volunteers with Generation Squeeze to try and apply the knowledge he gained in his former career in finance, in order to find solutions to Canada's economic issues.

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