A living wage within reach

Work should lift people out of poverty, not keep them there, states the Living Wage Advisory Committee

Marie and Rick Sullivan at an Occupy rally in Nanaimo last year. As members of the Oceanside Coalition for Strong Communities

The number of living wage employers is growing in B.C. and local proponents hope to bring it to District 69.

“We want to raise awareness and begin to change the way people look at poverty,” said provincial campaign organizer Michael McCarthy Flynn of Living Wage for Families.

The idea came in response to B.C. having the highest rate of child poverty in the country and the fact that nearly half of children in poverty have at least one parent working full time, meaning low wages are a big part of the problem.

A living wage is calculated for each community, adjusted for inflation and based on an average family with two working parents and two school age children.

In Vancouver for example each adult would have to make $18.81 per hour, in District 69 it is $16.27.

The wage should cover what they call “bare bones expenses,” with the Vancouver example including monthly expenses of $768 for food, $1,360 for shelter and $496 for transportation. It does not cover debt payments, vacations or saving for retirement, children’s education or emergencies.

It includes $933 a month for all contingencies and miscellaneous costs for a family of four including entertainment.

Their slogan is “Work should lift you out of poverty, not keep you there,” and to that end they look at wages in a wider context.

Local advocates point out that in the District 69 calculation childcare is the largest single item, so they suggest a $10 a day public childcare system to reduce the local wage to $13 an hour.

A survey last year found 67 per cent of British Columbians support the idea and it is growing with local organizations including an endorsement by the school board, which is exploring the idea.

The City of New Westminster was the first to sign on, both for their own employees and their contractors, getting almost entirely positive feedback. Other communities have since followed.

In May 2011 Vancity — the largest credit union in the country — became a living wage employer which McCarthy Flynn said was ideal because it doesn’t hurt the bottom line of large operations and the spin-offs are big.

“It starts to make sense to pay a living wage if you want to do business with those companies and communities.”

He compared it to environmentalism 20 years ago when most companies would laugh it off, now everyone advertises how green they are.

“Those organizations then directly begin to stimulate the local economy,” he said. “If you raise wages you stimulate the economy by putting more money in the hands of a larger group of people that are desperate to buy things.”

He said a number of studies show that poverty — and even more specifically inequality — have direct negative impacts on health care, education and social cohesion.

“We have to remember the economy is just the means to an end, it’s not an end in itself. It’s there to help people live better lives and be better educated.”

While B.C. minister of finance Kevin Falcon said he doesn’t believe inequality is a bad thing, in response to a BC Stats report that B.C. has the widest gap between the top and bottom 20 percent of incomes of any province, McCarthy Flynn disagreed.

“More income equal countries like Japan and Scandinavia are actually more competitive than inequal countries like the U.S.”

“It’s not an issue of financial resources, there’s plenty to go around,” he added, wondering why people have bought into the “pressure that we have to keep wages low or we’re not competitive. It’s the high end jobs that make a community or country competitive, not minimum wage jobs.”

He said that while it seems like a hot topic, “there’s no actual debate about these things, there’s no dialogue, just two opposing sides. We have to get away from that.”

He stresses that the concept is voluntary, pointing out “many smaller companies simply can’t afford it. Often small business owners aren’t making a living wage themselves,” so they wouldn’t pressure anyone.

“There are many things we can do through tax credits and government subsidies,” he said calling on the population to at least begin the conversation.

The District 69 Living Wage group is working on public events in the near future. Watch The News for more information or check http://livingwageforfamilies.ca.

 

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