Paying a ‘living wage’ is good for everybody

April 29, 2014

We all want Metro Vancouver to be a livable and sustainable place, for ourselves, our families and our children. However, for many families who work for low wages, municipalities across Metro Vancouver are inhospitable.

We often hear about the affordability problem in our region but we rarely hear about the flip side to this problem: the low-wage problem. High living expenses and low wages mean that tens of thousands of working families are living in poverty across Metro Vancouver and around B.C.

This affordability crisis is put into sharp focus by the fact that the 2014 Metro Vancouver living wage rate is has risen to $20.10, according to a report released today by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, First Call: B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition and the Metro Vancouver Living Wage for Families Campaign.

This hourly wage is almost double B.C.’s minimum wage, meaning that workers in minimum-wage jobs in Metro Vancouver have to work two jobs to make ends meet. It also means that Metro Vancouver is in the unenviable position of being the first community in Canada where the Living

Wage rate has broken the $20-an-hour mark.

The living wage is calculated as the hourly rate at which a family with two full-time earners and two young children can meet its basic expenses (rent, child care, food and transportation) once government taxes, credits, deductions and subsidies have been taken into account.

B.C. has the highest child-poverty rate in Canada and has ranked worst in Canada for nine out of the last 10 years. In Metro Vancouver, this problem is at its most serious; we have the second-highest child poverty rate, at 19.4 per cent, among Canada’s 20 largest urban centres. Child poverty in B.C. is very much a low-wage story. In 2011, the last year for which we have data, one out of every three poor children lived in families where at least one adult had a full-time, full-year job and a majority lived in families with some paid work, part year or part time.

Livable and sustainable cities, at their most basic level, are places where everyone can cover their basic living expenses. This should be an issue that concerns all citizens because whether we’re aware of it or not poverty affects all of us:

Metro Vancouver’s sizable low-wage sector is a barrier to our future prosperity. High rates of poverty among working-age populations indicate wasted human resources, opportunities, and public spending. As the OECD has concluded, “failure to tackle the poverty and exclusion facing millions of families and their children is not only socially reprehensible, but it will also weigh heavily on countries’ capacity to sustain economic growth in years to come.’

Our municipalities are paying a large price for their large low-wage sector. When children live in poverty, or when parents are compelled to work multiple jobs to stay afloat and end up with little time with their children, all of society pays the price. Municipal governments must pay for additional services and policing costs as a result of poverty.

Paying living wages is a key way to support the local economy as low-income families spend almost all their money close to home. When members of the community have disposable income, there is money available to maintain and expand local economies. When people within the community are struggling to make ends meet they have little cash to contribute to the local economy.

The existence of low-wage poverty, particularly linked to child poverty, is the height of unsustainability. People can’t always make sustainable choices when they’re in survival mode. Simply stated, a person earning too little to provide their basic needs does not have the option of choosing ethical purchases, organic options or fair-trade goods or may simply not have the time to research such matters because they are working two jobs.

Though a $20.10 an hour living wage rate may be a surprise to some, it is important to remember that this rate reflects, in part, a failure of public policy to provide affordable and accessible services to support healthy families, such as universal childcare, affordable rental and social housing, affordable and convenient public transportation.

We all need to encourage more firms to follow the example of the 36 organizations in Metro Vancouver, employing over 6,000 workers and covering many thousand more contracted service workers that have been certified as Living Wage Employers. These include SAP-Vancouver, Vancity, The Canadian Cancer Society (B.C. and Yukon Division), the City of New Westminster and Eclipse Awards, Small Business B.C.’s “Best Employer” in 2012 and 2014.

It is in our all of our interest that this number continues to grow.

Michael McCarthy Flynn is the Metro Vancouver Living Wage for Families campaign organizer.