Increasing Alberta’s minimum wage to $15 per hour was supposed to reduce poverty, lessen the burden on social support programs and improve the quality of life for vulnerable people.
That was the message conveyed by the Government of Alberta in a release entitled, Changes to Alberta’s Minimum wage. They stated, “Low-income earners should be able to support their families without having to visit the food bank. That’s why we changed Alberta’s minimum wage to $15 on Oct. 1, 2018.”
In the five months since, the message has not been born out by the reality, at least if you’re the CEO of the Calgary Food Bank.
James McAra, CEO of the Calgary Food Bank says the minimum wage increase has had no effect whatsoever on their numbers and demand at the food bank continues to rise.
“Minimum wage doesn’t impact the people who are turning to the food bank in a period of crisis. What has been suggested to us and [has] been shown by other research is that the cost of living has outpaced minimum wage anyways,” says McAra.
Alberta’s minimum wage is the highest in the country but still falls short of the current living wage, an estimate of what individuals need to earn in order to cover the basic cost of living in a specific community. Estimates from various sources have fixed Alberta’s living wage at $17.70 to upwards of $18 per hour in 2018.
Founded in 1982, the Calgary Food Bank continues to act as an emergency food support for individuals and families in crisis amidst the effects of the recent economic downturn.
“Calgary really had an advanced attitude toward how they saw their city building and how they looked after their neighbours,” says McAra.
Since 1995, funding cuts and restrictions on social assistance and employment insurance programs have increased strains on low-income Calgarians as well as the food bank.
“If you are receiving social services, you’re a single parent family …you’ve got four or more children. If you touch government support, you will be with the food bank forever,” says McAra.
“It becomes an unfortunate situation. It’s a situation a lot of social serving agencies are in [due to] failure on the part of public policy to either address, maintain or keep up with happenings in the community [which] is offloaded into the charitable sector.”
Despite being a key organization used in the alleviation of poverty, the Calgary Food Bank is not in a position to inform public policy according to McAra.
“When we have conversations about policy, the food bank is also not at the table to talk about poverty. [We] are not at the table to talk about what we experience day-to-day, year-to-year as a result of whatever policies are being put in.”
McAra says that food banks statistics are often used by the party in opposition to undercut the party in power. However, he does not believe food banks mask the lack of government initiative in poverty reduction.
“Really, we could stop tomorrow. But is that what we want as a civil society? To create situations in which we punish those in need or in crisis just to make a point that we already know exists?”
Ensuring that food is available to individuals, families and agency partners enables non-profit organizations to help those in crisis focus and address root causes of poverty.
“I think there’s an opportunity for government to truly address policies and not just tinker around the edges,” says MacAra.
“It’s an extremely complex issue that will not be solved by changing minimum wage or popping up an AISH [Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped] at this particular point in time and then just letting it sit and flounder.”
Derek Cook, director of the Canadian Poverty Institute also emphasizes the complexity of poverty reduction.
“Poverty is a little bit like cancer, in the same way that there’s lung cancer or stomach cancer or leukemia, there are different kinds of poverty and they require different kinds of solutions,” says Cook.
“There isn’t one answer to it.”
The cost of poverty in Alberta sits at an estimated $8 billion annually. According to Cook, action is required from not only the government but also the business community.
“On the part of government, I think the minimum wage increase is an important and needed first step,” he says. “Ensuring that our income support benefits are adequate is another piece of work that the government needs to do.”
Cook’s message to the city’s business community is that reducing poverty is as desirable a goal for businesses as it is for people living in poverty.
“For business, ensuring that people are paid a living wage is critical to not only making sure that our workers are taken care of, but there’s a mountain of evidence that demonstrates that it’s also good for business.”
According to Cook, multiple benefits, including greater productivity, reduced turnover, savings on hiring and training costs and increased commitment of workers to the company, result from paying living wages.
“There is no conflict really between generating profit and value for the company and generating value for your workforce and your community. I would argue that if your business model is one that requires you to pay a poverty wage, then you probably don’t have a good business model,” says Cook.
Cook suggests that extending the scope of the Guaranteed Income Supplement, a monthly non-taxable benefit, for not only eligible seniors but all citizens would ensure that everyone has sufficient income to meet their basic needs.
According to Cook, other social policy innovations, such as childcare and pharmacare, are critical in poverty reduction as these costs can be “crippling financially” for many Canadians.
Cook says the lack of adequate, affordable and quality childcare is one of the many reasons why parents are unable to enter the workforce or are unable to meet their basic needs.
With nearly 40 per cent of parents being among 254,000 employees making less than $15 per hour in Alberta prior to the recent minimum wage increase, family support services could prove beneficial in poverty alleviation.
Non-profit organizations like the Calgary Food Bank continues to rely on the support of the community rather than the government to address food insecurity and poverty.
Heebee-Jeebees, a Calgary-based acapella group, made it a tradition to support those in need since their debut in 1993.
“Who would have thought an acapella ensemble would still be gigging after 25 years?” Jonathan Love, a member of the group says.
“We like being a part of our hometown tradition and giving to the Calgary Food Bank is a part of ours.”
Heebee-Jeebees’ most recent show celebrating their 25th anniversary, encouraged all event-goers to bring non-perishable food donations for the food bank.
Theatre Calgary’s Toonies for Turkeys’ fundraising initiative is another manifestation of the community’s generosity. Since 1997, the campaign has raised over $2 million for the Calgary Food Bank.
Over the years, the Calgary Food Bank has evolved from a not-for-profit ran by four volunteers in the basement of a church to a million-dollar organization with 9,000 volunteers, a prime example supporting those who say Calgary is the volunteer capital of Canada.
“Food banks aren’t government funded. Food banks are not typically United Way receiving agencies,” says McAra.
“They run because the communities want to look after itself.”
Editor: Sam Nar | firstname.lastname@example.org