This morning there was a lively debate on CBC`s The Current about working poverty and what would happen if we raised incomes for low wage workers in this in this country and in this province. Two key things popped out at me this morning: first, how hard it is to be healthy on minimum wage, and second, who is really working for minimum wage in Ontario.
Health is an important factor when looking at poverty. There are all kinds of paths that lead to good or poor health: like whether the neighbourhood you live in is safe to walk around in and to be active outside, like whether or not you can save for or pay for education to ensure you earn more in the future, like whether or not your low-paying job gives you health benefits, and whether or not you can buy healthy and fresh food which is vastly better for you than processed and pre-packaged food. There is no argument there. Being poor limits all of these choices.
So this morning on The Current we heard from three minimum wage workers who told stories of the difficulty of buying fresh and healthy food. Ontario data show that 49 percent of people who are considered the working poor report having good health, compared to the 66 percent of those who made sufficient incomes that reported their health as good or excellent. One of the workers had young children. The high cost of child care aside, childhood obesity is also more common in low income neighbourhoods than those neighbourhoods that are home to families that earn enough to buy healthy food. High income doesn’t guarantee good health, but low income almost ensures poor health and health inequities in Canada.
The second argument that popped out at me was the idea that people working for minimum wage are youth. Maybe the common picture of a minimum wage worker is the teenager at the takeout window at Burger King. But let’s take the minimum wage debate outside of youth culture and outside of the restaurant and the bar. Today, forty percent of minimum wage earners in this province are over 25 years old. More than 1 in 10 racialized women aged 25 and over are working for minimum wage, and for women who are recent immigrants, that number is almost 1 in 5. So, not all minimum wage workers are young people who delay moving out of their parents house in order to save up some cash, as the Fraser Institute’s Charles Lammam argued this morning on The Current. The reality in Ontario is the share of adult employees at minimum wage more than doubled between 2003-2011. That increase was even faster for racialized adult employees. When we talk about minimum wage earners in this province and in this country, let`s get it straight who we are really talking about.
And, Ontario sadly also suffers from the tipping wage, which means that people earning tips at the bar or restaurant you go to make a lower base rate: $8.90, to be exact. I won’t go into the discussion of whether or not the public should be subsidizing what ought to be living wages paid by employers, but you can read an old paper I wrote here when I lived in Manitoba when that province was debating adopting a tipping wage, and I believe the arguments still stand today. For example, tips are unreliable, inconsistent, and create an environment of vulnerability and precarity that creates a stressful work environment, among other things.
Raising the minimum wage is about raising people in Canada out of poverty. It’s about the near one million people in Ontario making between $10.25 and $14.25 an hour, of which 60 percent are aged 25 and over, earning enough to pay bills, to buy healthy food, and to save for the future. These things shouldn’t be the luxuries of the well-off. More equal societies work better for everyone, not just the poor.