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Metro Vancouver 'living wage' rises to $20 an hour

Vancouver's Melissa Croda works full-time as an inventory supervisor at a Richmond linen store, but she and her family now must move out of the city to make ends meet.

Not only that, but both the 49-year-old mother of one and her husband have been forced to take on a second job. She said they go for days "passing each other in our sleep," scarcely spending time together because of their busy schedules.

With costs of living in the Lower Mainland skyrocketing -- and housing prices the least affordable in Canada, according to the most recent National Household Survey -- Croda's story is increasingly common.

A new report released today by a consortium of anti-poverty groups added up a basket of 10 common expenses for an "average" family, and calculated a two-parent family with children would need to earn $20.10 just to make ends meet, including rent, transportation, MSP premiums, taxes and some leisure activities.

That's nearly a half-dollar rise from last year's $19.62 "living wage" calculation.

The increase wasn't a surprise to one of the organizations behind the research, the Metro Vancouver Living Wage for Families Campaign.

"In reality, a parent would need to work two minimum wage jobs to reach that level," said campaign organizer Michael McCarthy Flynn. "It doesn't even include paying off debt, saving for retirement, owning a home, or saving for their children's future education. You would have to take another job or move out of Vancouver if you wanted to do that."

The annual report was an initiative of McCarthy Flynn's organization alongside the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-BC and First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition.

But according to the Fraser Institute's economic policy scholar, who has written extensively about minimum wage and living wage, the raging wage debate has become overrun by emotions and ideology. He took issue with the report's methodology, in particular its allowance for "minimal" recreation and entertainment expenses ("hardly a measure of bare minimum," he said).

"We need to separate good-intentions and emotional arguments from what actually happens," Charles Lammam said when asked about living wage campaigns. "Unfortunately, the reality of the labour market is that people get paid based on how productive they are. If someone's able to produce only $15 of goods and services an hour, but the bare minimum is $20, it's going to price people out of the market. There are very negative consequences when governments intervene in this regard."

Three years ago, New Westminster became Canada's only city to pass a "living wage" law, joining roughly 140 municipalities south of the border to do so.

Instead of raising the minimum wage, Lammam proposes tax incentives such as subsidies for low-income people. "It's not perfect, but it's certainly less distortionary than a regulatory policy such as minimum wage," he suggested.

Lammam added that only a fraction of minimum wage earners are working families or single-parent families, as they are often portrayed -- rather, the majority are under 24, many of them living at home, he said. The most recent data is from Ontario where that fraction is roughly three per cent of the lowest earners, he said.

But McCarthy Flynn said that the numbers are higher, arguing that roughly one-in-four Canadians earn low wages. B.C.'s high child poverty statistics are directly tied to the fact that one-in-three poor children are in full-time working families, he said.

The report concluded that full-time childcare is the second-highest expense for families, at $1,242 every month. Unsurprisingly, only housing costs were higher at nearly $1,500 a month.

"How have we gotten ourselves into a situation where a quarter of people haven't got a wage basic enough to live on?" McCarthy Flynn asked. "We will have a stagnating economy as long as so many people live on a low wage, because people won't have the money to spend and circulate to drive our economy."

Amid rising personal debt levels across the country, the one thing for which Croda is grateful is that her family has struggled to live within their means, even if it means a diet dependent on "lots of cheap pasta and beans" and no vacations or even weekend camping trips.

"I am only thankful that we haven't gotten our selves into a situation where we have a huge amount of debt," Croda said. "We end up going without rather than putting our selves in a predicament that we can't possibly get out of."

David P. Ball is a staff reporter at The Tyee.

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