October 07, 2015

Poverty concerns should move to the front burner

As published in The Erin Advocate

Poverty is big problem, but it doesn’t seem to be a big issue in the current federal election. Perhaps there is a feeling that it is too complex a problem to do anything about. Perhaps issues that will take decades or centuries to fully solve are beyond the interest span of a four-year government.

Internationally, is Canada willing to look beyond its short-term goals as an elite nation, by fostering improvements in human rights and economic self-sufficiency in poorer nations?

Domestically, are we willing to tackle the challenge of respecting the rights of First Nations people, while enabling them to prosper within our broader society?

Canada can be proud of its social safety net, but the cost could become unaffordable if we don’t fix some of the underlying economic problems.

Are we willing to write off whole sectors of the population to chronic poverty – the addicted, the mentally ill, the pensionless, the disabled, the ones poorly served by our schools, the ones with unexpected burdens and the ones with simple bad luck? Or do we look for dignified ways for them to contribute and have some hope of improving their situation?

Taken one at a time, the problems are solvable. At the All Candidates meeting last week, I asked candidates if they support a substantial increase to the federal minimum wage.

As Conservative Michael Chong pointed out, there is no actual minimum wage for federally regulated industries, where many workers already earn substantially more. The Liberals cancelled the minimum almost 20 years ago, but the NDP and Greens want to bring it back and increase it to $15 per hour over several years.

Chong said it is better for provinces to set the main minimum wage (currently in the $10 to $11.25 range in Canada) since the cost of living varies regionally. Still, I think would be valid for the federal government to send a signal that the status quo for the working poor is unacceptable.

Some economists say minimum wage increases cause harm, since employers hesitate to hire more workers, and that added wage costs drive up prices. These are legitimate concerns, but I believe the employment impact would be short term for viable businesses. And I’d be glad to pay a little more at Walmart or McDonald’s.

Brent Bouteiller of the Green Party backs a $15 per hour minimum wage, but said the impetus needs to come from the grassroots level to affect provincial policies.

Liberal Don Trant did not address the minimum wage. “Our approach would be to increase the income taxes on the wealthiest 1% of the population and redistribute that money to the middle class,” he said. “The middle class needs the money, and their spending stimulates the economy.”

That is all valid, but it doesn’t deal with the people who are struggling to join the middle class. Those who pay little income tax, but are often uncertain if they will be able to pay the rent and buy groceries next month. The minimum wage affects not only young people trying to break into the job market, but middle agers hurt by lack of opportunity in the economy and seniors who must work to supplement their pensions.

“It’s not the middle class people who are making $60,000 or $70,000 a year who need a $15 per hour minimum wage,” said the NDP’s Anne Gajerski-Cauley.

“It’s the poor people that need it. When we can lift those people out of poverty, all of us will be dignified, so I strongly support it.” For that, she received a round of applause.