Guest Blog: Forget the Numbers, Let’s go to the Mall
The September 10th editorial in the Calgary Herald concerning the minimum wage increase in Alberta generated some great feedback. Many thanks to frequent VCC contributor and Living Wage Action Team member, Timothy Wild, for sharing his thoughts.
Recently Dan Meades, the urbane, brilliant and generally witty Director of Vibrant Communities Calgary, was taken to task by the editorial board of The Calgary Herald for his suggestion that the risible September increase in Alberta’s minimum wage would not “have an impact on poverty rates in the province”. The Herald, following their typical free market ideological line, suggested that Alberta’s workers have the “highest income in the nation” and that only 2% of working Albertans worked for the minimum wage, adding that many of that particular cohort of low paid workers were young people working for job experience and/ or pocket money. As if 2% of the population isn’t worthy of attention…but ironically, on the other hand, the economic wellbeing and ongoing enrichment of the 1% is! Anyway, to back up this assertion, the almost daily newspaper quoted a representative of Alberta Human Services who suggested “a lot of minimum wage earners are young dependents, living at home, working at the mall”. Overall, The Herald cautioned its gentle readers that a meaningful increase in the minimum wage would lead to job loss and fewer opportunities. It would not lead to a reduction in poverty in our province. Yawn!
Sadly, the content, direction and thrust of the editorial are hardly surprising. But once again the piece about the minimum wage failed to put the issue into a meaningful context. It also downplayed the demographic profile of minimum wage earners. For example, more than 50% of people working for minimum wage are over the age of 25, and many of these workers are women employed in the service sector of the economy, enjoying few – if any – benefits. And if you do actually go to “the mall”, look at the workers in the food courts (especially the people cleaning the tables and mopping the floors). There you will see the older, female and New Canadian face of the service economy. Chat with them as I have and you will find that many of these workers are trying to meet the daily basic costs of living – food, shelter and clothing. That, my friends, is the face of the 2% that is so cavalierly dismissed by the newspaper and the provincial government.
Furthermore, it bears emphasizing that minimum wage earners are just one section of a wide array of lower paid members of the postindustrial working class who fail to earn a decent / viable wage. Even the Living Wage only aspires to bring wages up to the equivalent of a poverty level income for a single person; the adequacy of the income for a family is not even a consideration. All told the legitimate concerns surrounding the practicality and functionality of the minimum wage reflect just the tip of the low-wage iceberg. But the editorialists of The Calgary Herald dismissed (or, I will be generous, overlooked) these legitimate concerns and broader public policy dimensions.
I guess the basic point is that ideology aside full-time employment is no guarantee of meaningful social inclusion. Wages themselves are no guarantee that workers and their families will not experience the bitter sting of preventable poverty. Minimum wages, Living Wages and wages even slightly above Statistics Canada’s Low Income Cut Off lines (but below the incomes suggested by the more realistic Core Needs Income Thresholds) are no guarantee that the worker and her family will be able to participate meaningfully in society.
But what could guarantee this inclusion, choices and participation? Well, decent wages can certainly be an important part but they have to be aggregated as just one part of a comprehensive poverty elimination strategy. Income from employment must be augmented with, for example, accessible quality and affordable childcare, educational opportunities for people of all ages, job retraining schemes and the provision of affordable housing. And for those unable to participate in the traditional work-income nexus, there must be adequate programs of income replacement such as AISH, EI and WCB. That is how wages fit with the development of a comprehensive social policy framework aimed at eliminating poverty. It can be done; we just have to show the political will.
When it comes right down to it, it may be “just” 2% of the workforce. It may “only” be 30,000 or so workers. But I don’t actually care about the actual numbers. I am more interested in justice for each and every Albertan, because when it comes right down to it – as the phrase goes – “an injury to one is an injury to all”.
Timothy Wild, RSW