Antigonish was part of a recently released report entitled Working for a Living, Not Living for Work, which concluded that two working parents, with two children, each needed to earn a minimum of $17.30 an hour to “make ends meet,” in the community.
The report was developed from a study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) – Nova Scotia in partnership with the Antigonish Poverty Reduction Coalition. A release regarding its findings was distributed Dec. 19.
“The report, Working for a Living, Not Living for Work, uses the Canadian Living Wage Framework to calculate two local community living wage rates for Nova Scotia,” the release reads.
“This is the first time the calculation has been done for Antigonish. The living wage for Halifax decreased by almost one dollar, from $20.10 in 2015 to $19.17 in 2016, mainly due to the new Canada Child Benefit.”
CCPA Nova Scotia director Christine Saulnier, a co-author of the report, is quoted in the release.
“The living wage is an important benchmark because it is evidence-based and locally-tested; it has been proven to increase productivity, decrease turnover, and allow workers to fully contribute, in the workplace and beyond,” Saulnier said.
“Paying a living wage is a voluntary commitment that employers can make in directly compensating workers. However, as the living wage calculation shows very clearly this year with the Halifax update, the more generous government benefits or public services, the less pressure on the wages families need to earn to meet their needs, thus reducing pressure on employers.”
Saulnier’s co-author on the report is Antigonish Poverty Reduction Coalition chair Christine Johnson.
“Understanding the challenges of working for low incomes in a rural setting was important to us,” Johnson said as part of the release.
“We assumed the family in our research model lives and rents in the Town of Antigonish. But this means the wage rate is a conservative estimate that many people told us would leave their families struggling to find affordable and suitable rental housing.
“Many families choose to move out of the town, but then they find it hard to stay within the transportation budget. They told us that this would contribute to their isolation.”
Another quote from the release is included as being representative of how low-wage workers in Antigonish view a ‘living wage.’
“I think it would be living without being stressed to the max and making yourself sick; it means not working multiple jobs,” the quote reads.
In talking to the Casket Dec. 22, Johnson expanded on the concept of a living wage.
“It’s a wage that is voluntary; we’re suggesting it’s an amount that, if an employer paid that, it would, sort of, allow people to meet their basic needs,” she said. “But what is most important about it is, it also sets a benchmark for the amount of money that is required to live well in our communities. Whether that comes from employment or government transfers, wherever, we’re saying this is the amount of money that people need to meet their basic needs.
“It meets your basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, etcetera, but it’s also about quality of life. So it’s about that piece of not being stressed to the max, not constantly having to juggle your costs of living all the time and being panicked about whether you’re going to eat this week or not.”
Johnson also touched on the idea of providing for “social inclusion.”
“It [living wage] is intended to support things like healthy child development and it’s intended to support inclusion and participation in our communities,” she said.
“We do put an amount of money in there for social inclusion for the things we all expect to be normal parts of living. That might be; doing Christmas, sending your kids to a birthday party and having a gift to bring, participating in sports, contributing in your community in some way by volunteering.”
As for how Antigonish became part of the study that had been done for Halifax in the past, Johnson said the coalition approached Saulnier.
“We were really interested in doing the living wage for a couple of reasons; one was to reflect, basically, the situation in rural communities,” she said.
“That being said, there is plenty more rural than Antigonish which we’re hoping to, maybe, do next year. But that was part of it … we’re always talking about how poverty in rural areas might look different than in an urban centre; it’s not any better or worse, it’s just different.
“And then we also, through our five-year action plan, have a number of areas we’ve been taking action on; housing, food security, etcetera, and income security is one of those areas. So we have really been diving into that, sort of, looking at policy options
“We’ve done some work around basic income; also on what would a poverty reduction strategy look like … and we’ve done work around income assistance. But this offered us an opportunity to, actually, do a calculation, get that benchmark, understand what it takes to live in this community and look at the various ways we might support people to achieve that ability to live well.”
In talking about who the report is geared towards, Johnson noted three sectors and the different ways it can be utilized.
“I think we kind of have three prime audiences; we have government, private sector and the general public,” she said.
“In terms of government, again, it’s looking at those policy options. By looking at that, maybe they should be saying, ‘wow, our income assistance is coming nowhere near this, maybe an option like a basic income would support people better in communities.’
“Also other areas; we know we’ve been lacking in an affordable housing strategy for a very long time in this country, we’re at the point of desperation here. The housing stock that was built is falling apart, we need to replace that. So that would make a difference.
“And even things like child care; one of the things this allows us to do is say; if we had a $10 a day subsidized child care program, that living wage would actually be $3 an hour less … so it’s really those kinds of pieces.
“There is also the possibility of legislating a higher minimum wage as well; showing how inadequate $10.70 an hour really is.”
With the private sector, Johnson said they took into account the differences between employers, noting each has its unique circumstances.
“There are some employers that can pay these wages – the multi-nationals which are making billions in profits, this is not going to harm them. For some of the small businesses, this would be challenging,” she said.
“But what we want to do is look at the overall picture and say, what can you do as an employer to improve the life of people in your community. Maybe it’s providing more flexible work hours so that they better match a person’s childcare requirements. Maybe it’s making sure people have consistent hours as much as possible; that came up as a challenge. From two weeks to two weeks, they really didn’t know if one week they might get 10 hours and then the next 25. It makes it very difficult for people to plan; for childcare, to plan financially, etcetera.
“So what can you do to support your employee to be healthy and happy and, in the end, that’s good for business. It’s good for you, they’re going to be more satisfied and they’re going to do a better job.”
For the general public, she noted it can address misguided perceptions.
“We’ve heard this said, many times, people don’t think poverty is a problem in Antigonish because we do have a lot of wealth,” she said.
“And, if you do look at the general average, yes, incomes are higher, employment is better than, let’s say, down the road. But what we have is a situation with the depth of poverty so, if you’re living in poverty, you’re living deep in poverty.
“So there is this big gap between wealth and those living in poverty and related to that idea, where in a rural community poverty is less visible, we wanted to show; this is what it takes to live, really, only decently. That scenario does not include savings, debt repayment – if you have a big student loan you’re trying to pay off, it doesn’t have a lot in there for emergencies or anything like that.
“So, again, this is enough to get by and live pretty well but you’re certainly not living super comfortably; you’re not going off on Caribbean vacations or anything.
“It’s just, sort of, helping people understand what the actual amount is to live well and some of the feedback I’ve received from people, who have decent jobs and lifestyles, they’re saying they had no idea – ‘I’m doing pretty well and I’m not going to complain because people are living with way less and it actually takes a lot of money to live well.’”
The full report – Working for a Living, Not Living for Work: The Halifax and Antigonish Living Wages for 2016 – is available for download at www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/reports/working-living-not-living-work-2016.