‘Denominator Neglect’ Rules in Bob Rae Attack Ad

‘Denominator neglect’ rules in Bob Rae attack ad

In the recent Conservative Party attack ad concerning Bob Rae, the ad shows a ‘Welcome to Ontario’ sign with a typewriter animation  revealing ‘1,200,000 welfare population’  scrawling on the sign. The audio in the background intones in a jovial mocking tone that “Premier Rae turned Ontario into the Welfare Capital of Canada”.

This is yet another claim in a long line of examples of ‘numerator’ politics. This is where you have a numerator and no denominator; a factual number without a context.

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman calls peoples inclination to make foolish choices ‘denominator neglect’.

Rob Ford does it with the number of city employees. The 53,000 which he considers way too many is a numerator, a factual number. Never mind that they serve 2.5 million people which means that there is just one city employee for each 47 residents.

So let’s look at some denominators and some context for the ‘welfare capital of Canada’ allegation.  I will start with a quiz on welfare rates, the amounts paid to recipients.

Your job is to match the welfare rate increase with a five year period of time leading up to and including the Rae years of 1990 to 1995. The two other periods are the progressive conservative years of 1980-1985 and the liberal years of 1985 to the year 1990.

In no particular order, the welfare rate increases for these three periods totalled 54%, 18% and 82%. Can you match the increases to the five year periods in question?

The facts are that it was Bill Davis’ Progressive Conservatives who raised welfare rates by 82% from 1980 to 1985, David Peterson’s Liberals who raised rates by 54% and Bob Rae’s NDP that raised rates by 18%.


In fact, in the last 4 years of Bob Rae’s government, he increased social assistance by a grand total of 3%: 2% in 1992, 1% in 1993, and no increases at all in each of 1994 and 1995.

It is interesting that the attack ad chooses 1994 as its key date.   March 1994 marks the month that welfare caseloads peaked following the worldwide recession of 1990-91. What the ads do not mention is that welfare caseloads in Ontario fell relentlessly in each and every one of the 15 months from April 1994 to June 1995 when Mike Harris was elected. Mr. Harris simply inherited the restraints that Mr. Rae had already initiated.

But it was not enough for Mr. Harris. He cut welfare rates by 21.6% and many claim that these cuts were a reaction to Mr. Rae’s generosity. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, Mr. Harris reversed the increases in benefits ushered in over the prior 15 years.  Mr. Rae’s government was responsible for less than 12% of those increases while Liberal and Conservative governments were responsible for over 88% of the increases.

So now that we have established that Mr. Rae was fairly modest in his approach to welfare over his years and office, is it fair to say that he made Ontario the welfare capital of Canada?

Using numerators without denominators and numbers without context, it’s easy to say that Ontario became Canada’s welfare capital in 1994. The reason is that Ontario must be Canada’s welfare capital because, with Canada’s largest population, it is the capital of everything that has anything to do with the number of people who live here.

In 1994, Ontario led the way with the most men, the most women, the most children, the highest number of people in prisons, the highest number of people on EI.   Ontario led the way on everything. So what?

But there is a much more important point here. In Canada and the rest of the world, we were all dealing with the aftermath of a major recession with the most prolonged period of high unemployment since the Great Depression.  Unemployment rates stayed higher than 10% for three long years. During the so-called Great Recession of 2008-2009 unemployment rates never surpassed 9.4%.

The reality is that in 1994, each and every province, regardless of political stripe, experienced their highest welfare caseloads since the Great Depression of the 1930’s. No jurisdiction was immune. One guesses, using the logic of the attack ad, that Mr. Rae should also be held responsible for the 60 year welfare peaks in the other 9 provinces.

So feel free to dislike Bob Rae for whatever reason you want but not because he turned Ontario into the welfare capital of Canada. The reality is that he didn’t.

John Stapleton

March 26, 2012


One thought on “‘Denominator Neglect’ Rules in Bob Rae Attack Ad

  • It’s a one-sided rant, that fails to mention before the balloons starting losing air on election night, the right-wing noise machine sprung into action. Another reaction to an NDP victory.

    Gerald Caplan wrote an excellent piece for the Globe in October of 2010, in which he says:

    snip snip: Mr. Rae’s provincial NDP government faced an unrelenting, brutal four-year onslaught that was unprecedented in Canadian history. The attacks came from all sides.

    It is no exaggeration to say hysterical fear-mongering and sabotage was the order of the day. Launched within the very first year of the new government, the attackers included every manner of business big and small, both Canadian and American-owned, almost all private media, the police (especially in Toronto), landlords and lobbying/government relations firms. Their goal was clear, and they had the money and power to achieve it.

    They were determined to undermine the government every step of the way, to frustrate the implementation of its plans and to assure its ultimate defeat. In all three goals they were successful. The considerable achievements of the government – often forgotten or dismissed –were wrought in the face of a deep recession and ferocious obstruction.


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