Is that any way to start a discussion?

The United Way’s report on what it takes to live in Halifax, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business’s knee-jerk response to the report and the need for an open, honest debate…


So what’s the difference between minimum wage and a living wage?

In Halifax, about $10 an hour.

That was the recent surprise-but-no-surprise conclusion of a meticulously documented, 62-page, 72-footnote report entitled “Working for a Living, Not Living for Work,” prepared by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives for Halifax’s United Way.

The United Way, of course, is best known as a do-good agency. Last year it sprinkled $5.9-million worth of fund-raised stardust across 56 worthy local organizations and neighbourhoods: the YWCA, the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, the Youth Project, Bryony House Women’s Shelter, Society of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Nova Scotians, North End Community Health Centre, Spencer House Seniors’ Centre, Out of the Cold Emergency Shelter, East Preston Day Care Centre… you get the picture. The gamut of good.

But the United Way’s mandate is about more than putting bandaids on gaping individual wounds. Having identified poverty and health as “critical” community issues, the agency also advocates to “change social policy that creates barriers, preventing people from accessing the support they need.”

You could put that another way: instead of focusing just on helping the downtrodden become slightly less downtrodden, the United Way also wants to alter the conditions that keep them downtrodden.

But don’t say that too loudly. If the Harperites discover the United Way isn’t sticking to its prescribed community-pacifier knitting, the organization could quickly find itself — as other charitable groups already have — in the cross-hairs of the Harper government’s tax-auditor storm troopers.

Perhaps not surprisingly — but disappointingly — the United Way is already under attack from the country’s supposed voice of small business for daring to state the obvious.

We’ll come back to that.

What is a living wage? Essentially, it’s “what it actually costs to live and raise a family in a specific community.” Using something called the Canadian Living Wage Framework, the CCPA calculated what it would cost for a typical Halifax family of four, with two full-time wage earners, to live, pay for rental accommodation, transportation, food, child care, clothing and medical expenses but not save money for children’s education, take out loans or mortgages, buy life insurance, or save for retirement.

The amount needed to live such a no-frills life in Halifax: $20.10 an hour.

The recently raised minimum wage in Halifax: $10.60

Perhaps even more telling, the median wage in Halifax is $18.85, meaning close to half of Halifax workers earn less than a living wage.

We do need to increase woefully inadequate legislated minimum wages. But we also need to recognize the value of a voluntary corporate commitment to paying employees a living wage.

According to its supporters, that isn’t just good for workers. It’s good for business. Studies show paying a living wage reduces employee turnover and absenteeism, and increases productivity. Not to forget improving a business’s reputation with customers, who are increasingly discerning when it comes to their spending.

The advocacy group, Living Wage Canada, offers a process so employers can become living-wage certified. More than 100 Canadian employers are — from VanCity, Canada’s largest credit union, to Calgary’s Chamber of Commerce, to Windsor, Ont.’s Elite Roofing Specialists.

Claims that paying a decent wage lead to massive job losses are little more than fear mongering, says David Green, an International Fellow at the Institute for Fiscal Studies in London, whose studies show “bold increases” to minimum wage make good economic sense. In fact, increasing the incomes of those at the bottom end of the scale has what Goldman Sachs describes as “a proportionately larger stimulating effect on the economy” than topping up corporate CEO compensation.

Which brings us back to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the small business advocacy group. Rather than dispute the living wage report’s conclusions, it attacked its sponsor, misrepresenting the United Way as “a left-wing advocacy group” promoting a government-imposed living wage and suggesting its members “rethink” their charitable support.

Is that anyway to begin an important discussion about a serious social and economic issue?


This column originally appeared in the July-August 2015 edition of Atlantic Business Magazine.

Read the report.

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