Fill a prescription or fill the gas tank? Affordability is a common concern for families across BC

April 26, 2017

Today, 11 communities across BC released their local living wage rates. A living wage is the hourly amount that two working parents with two young children must earn to meet their basic expenses.

As expected, Metro Vancouver has the highest living wage rate of $20.62/hour, but the resort-based economies of the Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Region and Revelstoke are not far behind at $20.11 and $18.77 respectively. The lowest living wage rates in BC are in Fraser Valley ($15.90), Comox Valley ($15.96) and the North Central Interior ($16.39).  The Capital Region has a living wage rate of $20.11, while North-East BC ($18.29), Powell River ($16.75) and Kamloops ($16.90) fall in the middle of the range of living wages across the province.

BC is a diverse province. Geographically we range from coast to mountains to desert to lush farm land. Our population diversity enriches us all. There are 198 distinct First Nations across BC, and almost a quarter of our population grows up in a home with a first language other than English or French. This diversity has deepened our understanding of human rights and created a rich tapestry of resilience.

Across this diversity, community organizations involved in the calculation and release of local living wage rates are seeing a common and growing concern about affordability. Families are struggling with difficult conversations about which bills must be paid and which can be put off. Families working full-time, year round are making hard decisions about whether they will fill a prescription or put gas in the tank so they can get to work.

We see these affordability decisions popping up in concrete ways. According to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, the lowest income 40% of families are more likely to be cell-phone-only households and no longer have land lines. Families are likely making this decision in order to eliminate an extra bill payment. For the first time this year the living wage family budget calculation includes two cell phones and no land line.

The living wage calculation also includes internet access this year, as access to the internet is essential to functioning in today’s society. One example is the requirement to access government services online because offices have been closed or reduced their hours across BC.

The process of calculating regional living wages is a unique opportunity for community organizations across the province to participate in conversations about the issues they are hearing from the individuals they work with in their communities. These conversations often revolve around the highest expenses for families: housing and child care.

Across BC families have difficulties finding affordable and transit-accessible housing. This difficulty increases as family size grows. The Lower Mainland often dominates the conversation around housing affordability, but this year, for the first time, Victoria has a higher median rent than Metro Vancouver.  Revelstoke and the Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Region have seen a reduction in available rental units as property owners are supplementing seasonal work by maximizing the income from secondary-suites through vacation rentals. This means families most impacted by low-wage work are struggling to even find units.

Child care is a pressing issue across the province. In many communities the lack of child care spaces is partially due to child care workers’ low wages, despite having earned certification through multiple years of specialized education. Many workers leave the field because they just cannot earn enough to support their own families.

The provincial election provides an opportunity to see the connections between policy solutions and the common issues families are facing. We have seen the positive impacts of government polices as living wage rates drop across the province for the second year as the federal Canada Child Benefit offsets increasing costs.

The question we need to be asking BC political parties is how they plan to address our common struggles with affordability while recognizing the unique nature of communities and regions. One clear solution is a commitment by the next provincial government to play a leadership role in reducing poverty by ensuring the thousands of direct and contracted government staff are earning a living wage. This should be a central pillar of the urgently needed comprehensive poverty reduction strategy for BC.