At its meeting on April 22nd, Terrace city council tabled a recommendation from the city’s social workers that they adopt a living wage policy.
A living wage is not a minimum wage. A minimum wage is simply the amount an employer is legally required to pay. It has no relation to how much an employee needs to live on.
A living wage is the hourly amount a person would have to receive in order to not fall below the poverty line if working full time. The poverty line is the amount of money a person or family have to earn to be able to afford the bare necessities.
In Terrace, that figure is $17.60 an hour or thereabouts. Hard work should lift people, and their children, out of poverty, not keep them in it.
The idea of a living wage assumes that if people are working full time, they should be able to live on their wages.
It is based on an increasing amount of research that shows that people who have to take several jobs to get to the poverty line, have more health issues, use social services more, aren’t able to take advantage of schools and training and can get involved in the criminal justice system more.
All of this creates family pain and costs the community money. Poverty is rarely caused by personal decisions not to work. It is caused by social decisions to create poverty by not paying people enough to live on.
Some businesses say that they can’t afford to pay their employees a living wage. What they are in effect saying is that their employees will subsidize their businesses through low wages and other taxpayers will pick up the social costs of paying for the effects of the resulting poverty.
City council was not asked to require all Terrace businesses to pay a living wage. It was asked to set a good civic example by saying the city would pay their employees a living wage, (which they largely already do), and require city contractors to do the same.
New Westminster, which has already adopted a living wage policy, pays pays for it with an additional tenth of one percent of its municipal budget.
Social workers are presently reviewing the research in order to reply to the issues raised by council.
While council has legitimate questions on the effect of a living wage on city and business costs, members should not be surprised that poverty is an expensive business and right now poor families and children are paying the costs, and the taxpayers right along with them.
(Rob Hart is president of the BC Association of Social Worker’s Northwest Branch and teaches social policy at UNBC.)