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Local group pushing for livable wage in Renfrew County

By Ryan Paulsen, The Daily Observer

Lyn Smith, co-ordinator of the Renfrew County Child Poverty Action Network.

Lyn Smith, co-ordinator of the Renfrew County Child Poverty Action Network.

Renfrew County Child Poverty Action Network executive director Lyn Smith wants to put the "minimum" back in "minimum wage".

"Minimum wage is just the lowest amount that they're legally allowed to pay you," she says. "It doesn't mean that everybody should be paid this, which is really what people are perceiving it as: like it's a regular pay, and if you get more, that's good."

Smith is a key member of the still up-and-coming Living Wage Working Group, a small but dedicated organization whose goal is to encourage as many local employers as possible to pay not only minimum wage, but a liveable one.

A 'living wage', unlike a government-mandated minimum wage, is flexible and fluid, but is always set to establish a baseline income on which a person or family can reasonably live.

"Basically, living wage is calculated based on the area in which you live," she explains. "If you're in Toronto, there might be one living wage, and there are various calculations made for different areas, depending on what the rent is, how much child care costs, what the tax costs are. What we're focused on is finding out what it costs to live in Renfrew County. It's all based on a standardized family so we can compare apples to apples."

In a political climate where the minimum wage is itself seen as controversial, getting employers to go above and beyond it could be a tough sell, though Smith says that the benefits to paying higher wages can go both ways.

"We know from research that living wage has lots of benefits to it. The first one is that people who get a living wage can have a decent life, but why does it benefit an employer? Well, they have less staff turnover, so less re-training, staff are more loyal, they're proven to be sick less often, and happier, so the business thrives more."

Not only do higher wages help both the employer and employee, she says, they're also a general boon to the local economy.

"Obviously, when people are paid more, where are they going to spend it? They're not being paid like a millionaire, it's a little bit more so they can afford proper food and more clothing, so they're going to spend it in their local economy. So actually, [employers] are spending it to get it back again because it will come around again and boost our economy."

At the basis for the entire effort, though, is the idea of 'social determinants of health'.

"How well you live and how long you live depends on these determinants," explains Smith. "If you live in a good house with good food, and a decent job, and you don't have a lot of stress, chances are you're going to live a long and happy life. But if you're insecure in your housing and food security, you don't have enough money, you don't have a good job or any job, chances are you're going to have a shorter life and a lower quality of life. That's common sense."

The living wage approach is one of several ways that various groups are trying to introduce changes to help alleviate poverty in various forms within the Canadian economy.

Increasing the baseline minimum wage is an effort that's gaining traction at various levels of government, and getting to a target of $15/hr is an effort that the local Living Wage Working Group supports as a good stepping stone.

"We support their work, too, because if they get to $15, it's not going to be as hard for us to get the extra few cents an hour to get to the living wage."

Another approach is the notion of 'guaranteed adequate income'. The idea behind this is that an annual income figure would be established, and then a sort of "top up" would be applied through government funding to help people who fall below that threshold reach it.

"It's what they call a negative tax," says Smith, "which would help even the playing field for people who don't have enough by not giving the big tax breaks to those who have too much. It would kind of bump up people's income based on where they are on a sliding scale."

Another slightly more ambitious approach is that of a 'basic income', which has appeared in various forms around the world over the past few decades, often as a replacement for other social safety net schemes.

Perhaps the most famous Canadian example of an experiment with the concept of basic income came in the 1970s with the "Mincome" project. In that project, randomly selected low-income families in Winnipeg and rural Manitoba were sorted into various experimental groups that received a pre-set annual guaranteed income that was then reduced by either 35, 50 or 75 cents for every dollar earned by working. In the small town of Dauphin, MB, any resident could apply for the program to receive a base income of $4,800 (which would be roughly $21,5000 today when adjusted for inflation), reduced by 50 cents for every dollar worked.

While no official report was published following the project's shutdown under the Joe Clark Progressive Conservative government in 1979, a variety of independent academic analyses have been conducted on the data collected over the course of the project, revealing several social benefits to the scheme, with the only pronounced 'labour disincentive' effect being found among new mothers and teenagers.

"During the five years they ran," says Smith, "it was very successful. They had a better community, not as many people were sick, their economics went up, all kinds of positive things."

While the most common reaction to suggestions like establishing a basic income say that it's unaffordable for the country as a whole, Smith says that much of the current expense involved in a program like Ontario Works (what most people are referring to when talking about the province's 'welfare' system) come from its complexity and the multitude of rules and regulations that have to be written, checked and enforced, and that a simpler program without so much bureaucratic red tape would be far more efficient.

"If you logically think about it, a lot of people are on assistance programs that cost us a lot of money to run, and that's before we even hand any money out. There are 600-plus rules with more arriving weekly for Ontario Works. That's a lot of work for someone to make that many and check that many. Plus it puts people in a terrible predicament of having to beg for money and prove that they're worth it."

Back on the living wage front, once all the myriad factors are taken into account so that the local living wage can be properly estimated, the ultimate goal is to get business on board to set that as their own internal minimum wage. Although it's still very early in the research process, Smith is optimistic about the reception a local living wage would receive from Renfrew County employers.

"I'm hoping they'll be fairly receptive. I think we'll be looking at who would possibly already be living wage employers, and I would hope that Renfrew County would be receptive to it. I would think they'd know enough about the work that we've done that they would at least consider it and look at all the benefits."

For more information about the Renfrew County Living Wage Working Group, contact Lyn Smith at CPAN - 613-735-9579.

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