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Living wages make communities more resilient

Trish Hennessy knows inequality. The founding director of the CCPA's project to examine increasing income inequality in Canada recently gave a Walrus Talk on resilience, and the key importance of making a living wage for weathering life's challenges.
She also sat down with Upstream founder Ryan Meili, to discuss why living wages are so important in Canada for healthy lives, healthy communities and a healthy economy.

A person holds out their hands, as if to beg, and there are coins in their hands.

Ryan Meili: You’re in Saskatoon today at the Walrus Talks, and the theme of the talks is resilience. What are you talking about that relates to this topic? How are you tackling that topic?

Trish Hennessy: Saskatchewan really is a poster child for resilience. The resilience of Indigenous peoples, the resilience of our history during the difficult times. I remember being a journalist here in the ‘80s writing stories about the impact of drought on farmers, on local downtowns, on businesses. When I left in 1989 to get a journalism job in Ontario, one of the last stories I wrote was about how everyone was leaving Saskatchewan for opportunities elsewhere, and the joke at the time was "would the last person to leave Saskatchewan, please turn out the light". Saskatchewan’s come back and become a province I never would have envisioned – in good and bad ways.

"We accept a minimum wage so low that even if you’re working full time, you are among the working poor. That’s a category that we could write off."

When people talk about resilience I find that they usually do it in a very individualistic way. What do you need to be a resilient person, what are the tools you need individually, as though it’s all coming from within and whatever adversity befalls us we deal with it, and we fix the problems ourselves. I like to look at resilience from a societal standpoint instead, and what makes communities more resilient. How we pay, and view, the lowest-paid workers in our society greatly affects how resilient those workers are to weather tough times and how resilient communities are as well.

RM: That makes a lot of sense when we think about health outcomes and resilience as a factor, resilience isn’t something that just emerges – it is something that is based in people’s family circumstance, family origins. Those things are so much determined by the income of that family, the education level, the type of housing they’re living in, the access they have to food.

TH: And the resources available to them. I start my talk tonight from a personal standpoint about how growing up in rural Saskatchewan, big farm family, we basically lived off the land, we grew our own vegetables, we had a huge garden the size of a farmer’s field. We froze them, pickled them, canned them, you name it, and we raised our own cattle. We even had a little dam on our ranch and so we started raising rainbow trout as well and being able to feed ourselves made us more resilient during those years when we couldn’t afford to go to a dentist or buy new shoes. Those years were more frequent than we would’ve liked, but we also knew that if we were having tough times our neighbours would help us out too. And we would help them out, and that made the community itself more resilient.

In a city, it’s harder. It’s harder to grow all of your own vegetables, you can’t have a cow in the backyard. That’s why the issue of what people are paid becomes part of whether workers are resilient or not. The problem we have everywhere in Canada is, we accept a minimum wage so low that even if you’re working full time, you are among the working poor. That’s a category that we could write off. It’s a social construct.

"Living wage can help inform how to raise the minimum wage."

We don’t have to have working poverty in Canada. We actually use policy to invent and embed working poverty. What if we turned that conversation around? What if we said that we could be a society where there was no working poor because everybody agrees – if you’re working, the job should pay, it should lift you above. That’s where the living wage conversation comes in, and it opens up a whole new way of looking at the lowest-paid workers in our midst.

RM: Would you like to see the minimum wage become a living wage, or are these totally different concepts?

TH: Yes and no. I think that at this stage of our social and economic policy development they are two different things, but one can inform the other. So we need to talk about what it takes to make ends meet, talk about how a family raising two kids spends more than a quarter of their income on housing alone, and then the next biggest item is child care, then food. This is what Upstream’s report tells us about the living wage in Saskatoon, and the real pressures on families raising kids here.

Whenever we talk about the minimum wage, the frame that gets sprung into action right away is that the minimum wage is what businesses say they’ll pay or can afford to pay and that completely pushes the reality of low wage workers out of the frame. You hear about the struggle of the mom and pop shop, you never hear about the struggle of mom and pop just trying to raise kids.

A living wage can help inform how to raise the minimum wage. What we’re missing in Canada is a bona fide benchmark of why do we have a minimum wage set at anything the way it is. CCPA Ontario has argued the provincial government should set the minimum wage as a percentage of the average industrial wage. So if the minimum wage were within fifty to sixty per cent of the average industrial wage province-by-province, the fifteen-dollar minimum wage movement that you hear about in the US would be a reality here, because minimum wage here would be closer to fifteen dollars.

RM: So that’s a reflection of what the market would bear?

TH: Exactly – I find that way to be more meaningful than an arbitrary measure. Now, is fifteen dollars an hour still enough to make ends meet? Well, your calculation for Saskatoon says no, you still need it to be $16.77, so the living wage could still inform that, but the living wage could inform other policy as well, like housing.

The biggest bite out of any household’s budget is housing in a community like Saskatoon when you’re booming and your housing costs have gone up. If we decided through our governments to implement an affordable housing strategy that would lower the living wage cost and lower rents, it would really make a meaningful difference in terms of a family household budget.

RM: Making conversations ‘mature’ often begins with how we frame them. You mentioned the living wage report that’s being done for Saskatchewan – what are your thoughts on the way that’s being presented to the public?

TH: Upstream’s living wage report on Saskatoon’s breaks the mould in terms of how we talk about the issue, in bold new ways that I think a lot of people will be emulating for years to come. First of all, you’re not asking the reader to wade through a lot of academic, technical stuff. You’re going right to the heart of the argument. You make the business case for paying a living wage really user friendly. It’s a report about the living wage in Saskatchewan but I think it will be read across the country because it’s so accessible and because it really focuses on the economic case behind it — on why it’s a good thing for businesses to embrace.

RM: You’ve spoken and written a lot on framing and the importance of economic realities. Sometimes I wonder if using the economic argument at the core, we actually undermine our frames to some degree because it bolsters this idea that economics is the most important thing – that focusing on growing GDP is the right thing to do.

TH: You could say that if you lead any conversation with the economic or the market frame, that you have capitulated to the right-wing. Part of the challenge is to get out of that frame and talk about rights-based thinking.

But when we say there’s a good economic case for paying a living wage, it’s not just about the fact that there’s a growing body of research showing that if a company pays their workers a higher wage they save money in terms of staff retention, less training and hiring… If we stop the conversation there then yes, we’re just free-marketeer business people, and we’re not actually using the economic frame to enrich the conversation.

That’s why we extend it and say “but you know what low-wage workers do with their money – they go and shop locally because they can’t afford to jet off somewhere else. They’re not going to the Bahamas, they’re going to a local restaurant or take their kids to local events that they wouldn’t have before, and they’re actually helping to make their own communities more resilient in the process.”

"The fact that we care so much about our own health and the health of others is an opening for a deeper conversation."

Then suddenly you start seeing that this economic frame tells us something more. It’s richer than just the business bottom line. Then when you starting talking about more workers with a living wage, who are more resilient, more able to weather the ups and downs of the market, that’s good for whole communities. It contrasts with boom-bust economies, where you pay workers high wages during the good times and then they’re unemployed in the bad times. It’s a discussion about what kind of economic model, what kind of labour marker we really want to foster in our community.

RM: Upstream uses that health frame to get people thinking about what it is we’re really trying to achieve as a society, using the social determinants of health to connect to root-cause social problems. What’s been your experience using health as a guide?

TH: If you think about any family gathering, what conversation is the safest conversation that you’ll hear over and over again? Is it about politics? Is it about jobs and the economy? Or is it about how your health is doing? You end up having conversations about health both in little corners and around the big table.

These days health is a bit like talking about the weather – we talk about our health all the time. The fact that we care so much about our own health and the health of others is an opening for a deeper conversation. It’s not just about “I’ve got this little tickle in my throat and it keeps coming” and “are you going to go see a doctor”, et cetera. It’s an invitation to have this deeper conversation that isn’t just about individual health but all of our health and all of our well-being and the factors that go into it. I think it’s a helpful starting point.

RM: There’s something about health that can make big concepts like taxes or climate change suddenly have a reality, a humanity to them that can be too abstract if you don’t actually connect it to something personal.

TH: Especially health care and taxation. The minute your family starts talking about the wait lists for a specialist and how grandma had to wait a year to see a doctor for her hip replacement, and why is there a line-up, and then you have this conversation about how we’re starving public services. You talk about how we’re not funding them to the level that we want to, and then you say “but why?” Because of tax cuts. One conversation can be a portal into another conversation, and it’s all connected.

Find the full details on Upstream's Saskatoon Living Wage report here, our article here, and read about it in the news here, here and here. Read more about the Ontario movement here, here and here.

Trish Hennessy is the director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' Ontario office, and founding director of their national project examining Canadian income inequality since 2006. She's also a contributor to the Growing Gap team, and a former journalist with an MA in sociology from the University of Toronto, a BA in sociology from Queen's and a BSW from Carleton.

Trish also publishes data-driven reports called Hennessy's Index, filled with powerful and sometimes shocking statistics on the state of Canadian well-being, and sociopolitical developments. Of particular note is this one on the growing class of precariously employed Canadians, for whom Living Wage policies are increasingly necessary.


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