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Status quo unacceptable in poverty debate

Posted on July 2, 2015 by Taber Times

As fears continue to remain for the NDP provincial government’s plan to increase minimum wage to $15 an hour, the Alberta Chamber’s of Commerce is currently gathering information from surveys for viewpoints involving the initiative which will see its first increment increase in October to $11.20 an hour.

There are those saying people need to be paid a living wage in an ever-increasing market supplying low-wage jobs, and others saying the minimum wage increase will cripple many small businesses.

Part of the problem in the debate is there are so many different variables in the discussion. The first phased in increase is set for October from the current $10.20 (not including liquor servers) an hour. Even the Momentum organization, a provincial think tank who wants to end poverty in Alberta, thinks any increase past $11 an hour in October would put too much hardship on businesses with not enough lead time to prepare for wage increases.

Also, the cost of living from one area of the province to another can be quite drastic. Living in large urban areas like Calgary, Edmonton and Fort McMurray is different than small, rural areas. There are also some minimum-wage employers that are more capable of dealing with wage increases than others. The Wal-Marts and McDonalds of the province can absorb wage increases through sheer volume of product they sell without a noticeable difference, while still keeping shareholders happy. The small business that employs single-digit employees offering a product without mass consumption, not so much.

But, that does not change the fact something needs to be done to some degree. Increasing the minimum wage eventually to $15 in 2018 still makes it only basically half of the average wage currently being earned in Alberta ($29.24 per hour, Government of Alberta data). Despite misconceptions, minimum wage and low-income earners are not teenagers living at home, earning beer money or college students, but rather 77 per cent of low-wage earners are over the age of 20 and 35 per cent are in their prime earning years (Poverty Costs 2.5: Investing in Albertans). The same study showed the minimum wage earners of today are worse off than those from the 1970s, factoring in inflation. In November 2012, Edmonton Social Planning Council released a report showing, of the Albertans earning $15 an hour or less, 58 per cent were 25 years or older. Alberta has the highest percentage of working poor (January Globe and Mail) and in a Canada-wide 2014 hunger count, it showed food bank use in Alberta increased at twice the national average.

Some economic theory states increased minimum wages will increase consumer spending per household which would help power the small business economy that is fretting over these increases.

There are no easy answers to the minimum wage questions as the provincial NDP government will have to bring plenty of careful foresight in its increase implementation up to 2018, perhaps offering protections to small businesses through decreased taxes.

Whether it is private enterprise or the government, someone is subsidizing low-income earners be it through health care, housing or other social programs as they look to make ends meet. No doubt about it, someone is paying the cost of low-income earners whether it is more directly with the business in the wages they offer, or the government later to ensure base necessities are covered.

However one views the minimum-wage debate, taking a head-in-the-sand, business as usual, everything-is-fine approach is not up to debate — that is just plain wrong.

Working-class poverty in the province needs to be addressed. If not through increased minimum wages as some are suggesting, then perhaps through heavily subsidized post-secondary and trades training to better the workforce skill set, cost-of-living indexes, rent controls for some, higher oil royalties, a North-American economy that is reversing the trend of producing a disproportionate amount of McJobs, and outsourcing jobs at an alarming rate to countries with shady work standards. Something — anything in reversing the trend where the ‘Alberta Advantage’ is an advantage in word only for many Albertans.

With the historic provincial vote that happened earlier this year, which is now seeing the first non-conservative majority government in 44 years, obviously Albertans as a whole are feeling something is wrong with the province, too.

The status quo for many full-time workers in Alberta is simply not working. Some may think raising the minimum wage is not the answer, that does not mean you stop asking the question… ‘how can we fix the Alberta economy as a whole?’
One should not look down on a low-income wage earners saying they need to ‘better themselves,’ yet access the services of those types of needed jobs multiple times during their day which every Albertan does, grabbing their morning coffee, gassing up or grabbing a quick bite to eat. Also, what is crippling small business cannot be a debate about minimum wage increases alone. If one is doing the majority of their shopping at big-box stores, the ills affecting small business survival goes far further than a minimum-wage debate.

No full-time worker that helps run the economy, servicing peoples’ needs with a solid work ethic, in one of the country’s richest provinces, should have their existence simply be eat, sleep, and work, worrying if their electricity is going to be shut off.

The Alberta Advantage should demand more dignity than that with its workforce.

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