It has been more than 15 years since journalist Barbara Ehrenreich went undercover to work at minimum wage jobs for three months. She juggled two jobs at a time, worked 14-hour days, but found it impossible to make financial ends meet.
Minimum wage earners are too often blamed for the challenges they face, when the real cause is the systemic economic downward spiral Ehrenreich encountered. If, for example, you can’t scrape together first and last month’s rent, your next best option is a cheap motel room that costs a lot more than an apartment in the long run. Maybe you end up living in your car, or in a shelter if it feels safe enough. Without a stove or refrigerator, you rely on more expensive, less nutritious food that can be microwaved at the corner store. Many low-income neighbourhoods don’t have grocery stores.
The realities facing minimum wage earners in the United States — and in Canada, too — are shameful in wealthy countries like ours. Ehrenreich wrote in Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting by in America:
“Shame on our own dependence on the underpaid labour of others. When someone works for less pay than she can live on — when she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently — then she has made a great sacrifice for you. The working poor are the major philanthropists of our society.”
Some poverty activists objected to a wealthy, highly educated woman like Ehrenreich “slumming it” for a couple of months and writing as if she truly understood the exhausting, precarious and impossible circumstances. Nickel and Dimed, they said, was just something for rich liberals to lament over lattes. Nor are the working poor “philanthropists.” The word implies generosity, not being systemically mugged.
Ehrenreich is right though. At the McDonald’s drive-through window, the harried, headset-wearing single mom working for minimum wage knocks a dime off of every burger. I may decry the plight of working poor, but each and every day I am the beneficiary of their low wages.
Right now in Canada, most help wanted advertisements are for retail, food service and hospitality positions. All of them pay minimum wage, or a few cents more, per hour. That minimum varies from province to province, but it almost always falls below recognized poverty lines and comes nowhere near the cost of living.
Living Wage Canada (www.livingwagecanada.ca) wants to change that. These local citizens’ groups are springing up across Canada. They use a formula to calculate the actual cost of living in their particular communities. Then, they advocate for a minimum wage that meets that need.
There is mounting evidence that where a living wage is paid, municipalities enjoy increased civic involvement and local consumer spending. Health-care and social costs associated with poverty decrease. Employers report decreases in absenteeism, turnover, and recruitment and training costs, and a boost in morale and productivity. Their businesses also attract consumers who are looking to spend in socially responsible ways.
For employees, a living wage means greater financial stability, more time for continuing education and training, and better health.
Labour Day is a day to remember the historic accomplishments of labour movements, such as the eight-hour workday, overtime pay, workplace safety standards, maternity and parental leave, vacation pay, and protection from discrimination and harassment. It is a day to commit ourselves to a living wage for the working poor.
Very Rev. David Giuliano is a former United Church moderator and a minister with St. John’s United in Marathon, Ont.