Thursday, January 30, 2014

Putting A Face On Minimum-Wage Poverty

Last evening I watched a fascinating documentary on PBS' Nature* about the black crested macaque, a monkey that is endemic to rainforests in Indonesia, which includes the island of Sulawesi. The monkeys are a badly endangered species whose numbers have dropped 90% over the last 25 years thanks to hunters who sell them as bush meat in local markets, this despite the fact that such hunting and sales are illegal. The film showed the almost human side of the monkeys, with their elaborate social interactions and hierarchies.

Wildlife cameraman and biologist Colin Stafford-Johnson, who first recorded them 25 years ago, had a purpose beyond merely acquainting viewers with these riveting creatures. Working with area groups and biologists, the plan was to show local populations the film in the hope that they would see the monkeys as fully-alive beings not so different from themselves, thereby engendering an empathy that might deter them from eating them. Early results suggest some success with this strategy.

Being able to relate to issues, problems and plights on a human and humane level, being able to see beyond arid statistics, is, in my view, essential if, as a society and species, we are ever to confront and solve some of our most pressing issues. It was in this spirit that I appreciated a recent piece by The Star's Joe Fiorito entitled Life on minimum wage is not a decent living.

Certainly we know the statistics: one in eight foodbank users in Canada are the working poor; 500,000 Ontarians, one out of nine, work at minimum wage jobs. But what is the human face of such poverty?

Looking through the eyes and experience of Doreen, a personal care worker, Fiorito offers that human face:

She is single. She is in her fifties. She has a bum knee and a bad back. She also has some trouble with her vision; a brain tumour, benign, she isn’t worried.

She lives in a rent-geared-to-income apartment in midtown Toronto. While we talked, she was waiting for her church to deliver a grocery voucher so she could afford to buy some groceries. Why?

Because Doreen can’t always afford to feed herself on the money she makes for the hours she gets.

But wait, there's more!

Dorren is an on-call worker, and if she is lucky, she will work nine-hour days, four days per week, thereby clearing a mere $1,240 per month.

Her rent is subsidized; she pays $592 a month, which leaves her with $648. A Metropass costs her $133. Her phone costs close to $20. She buys phone cards to talk to her mother, who lives in another country. Her cable and Internet cost $68 a month.

She also owes $900 on her credit card; yes, she sometimes uses her credit card for food.

She also takes certain medications which are not covered by the provincial health plan. “I had a knee replacement. My back is out. I still have to work. Sometimes I go without pain medication because I can’t afford it.” I repeat: She sometimes goes without her pain medication because she can’t always afford it.

Not a very pretty picture, is it? And not one that will in any measurable way be improved by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's decision to raise the minimum wage by 75 cents on June 1. The grinding face of working poverty continues to confront us and, thanks to a lack of political will, confound us.

* If you want to view the PBS show on the macaques, you will need a VPN such as Hola, free software that will mask your I.P. address so that it looks like you are an American viewer. (The PBS show is not licensed for viewing in Canada.)


  1. The constant problem with minimum wage tinkering is that it is not linked to living wage realities. We know with surprising precision what constitutes a living wage yet, for some reason, we choose not to use that in setting a minimum wage floor.

    As Wilkinson & Pickett demonstrate in "The Spirit Glass", poverty wages exact really horrible social outcomes. We simply choose to overlook the causal connection and, in doing that, we are unable to price the true cost to society.

    There are no perfect answers to this but there are plenty of pretty good answers that will deliver better social outcomes from which we all benefit.

    1. Willful blindness, Mound, seems to be a scourge of our age, one that governments and individuals are all too happy to indulge in.

  2. Lorne, when you wrote about poverty in South Africa, I thought that we don't have to look elsewhere as our own so-called 'developed nation' has serious poverty problem.

    The other day there was a story on CTV about Nova Scotia and that how food banks cannot keep up with people's needs who go to food banks. All Harper is interested in is developing Tar Sands and build pipelines everywhere. However, I thought that a Liberal premier in Ontario will do better than what she did with minimum wages. If this trend continues we're headed for more rough times.

    1. I'm very disappointed in what Kathleen Wynne has done, LD. From what I understand, $11 per hour will now be the basis for all future increments tied to the rate of inflation. In other words, the working poor will see no real abatement of their plight, only a long-term continuation of it.

  3. Correction, the title of the book is "The Spirit Level" Oops, senior moment.

  4. Our eldest son used to quote one of his professors. "If the cost is low," he said, "it means someone else is paying." Minimum wage workers are paying our bills.

    1. Your son's professor expressed a truth that too many seem unwilling to acknowledge these days, Owen.


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