How much does living cost?
That's a question that Seth Klein grapples with every day. The director of the B.C. office for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), it's his job to look at people's ambitions and find ways to make them affordable in a province where the price of everything from housing to gasoline to electricity is on an upward swing.
Speaking in Whistler last week as part of a speaker series put on by the Whistler Forum for Leadership and Dialogue, he talked at length about one solution his office has come up with: the "living wage."
Not to be confused with the minimum wage, the "living wage" is an hourly wage that helps people afford necessities like food, housing, clothing and transportation... and as Klein tells it, many an employer in British Columbia falls well below offering that threshold.
"For seven years in a row, B.C. has had the highest child poverty rate in Canada," he said. "But when you talk about child poverty with people, we tend to go right to welfare. And that's an important part of the story, but it's not the biggest part of the story. The biggest part is that second bullet, which is that the vast majority of poor children in British Columbia live in families with paid income.
"Child poverty in our province is not primarily a welfare story, it's a low wage story."
The living wage works like this: annual family expenses are calculated by adding income from employment to income from government transfers such as the Child Care Tax Benefit, the Universal Child Care Benefit and GST rebates. From that you subtract deductions like Employment Insurance premiums, federal taxes and provincial taxes.
The wage is calculated for a family of two parents and two children, aged four and seven years, with paid employment for 70 hours a week. The four-year-old is in full-time day care and the seven-year-old is getting before and after school care and summer care.
The living wage, in short, is the hourly rate of pay at which a family can meet its expenses when government transfers and deductions have been taken into account. For Vancouver, the CCPA calculates a living wage at $18.83 per hour, well above any anticipated increase in the minimum wage.
Klein made clear in his talk that his organization isn't lobbying the province to adopt the "living wage" as a statutory requirement. Instead he's targeting employers, primarily large public and private sector ones, asking them to commit to such a wage for both direct staff and major local service contracts.
"When I walk employers through this, when they first hear about the wages, they're a little nervous," Klein said. "But then you walk them through it... and I have never once had an employer say that they think it's unreasonable, when they actually get to see how we get the number. Instead there's always something of a revelation to it.
"It's this penny dropping moment, it's fantastic."
The issue of affordability is a particularly prescient one for Whistler, where few current residents can remember a time when it was easy to purchase or rent a home here. Couple that with residents' concerns about transit, pay parking, rising property taxes and business taxes, and Whistler appears an unaffordable place to live.
Dan Wilson, a sustainability planner with the Whistler Centre for Sustainability, said his organization has been helping the Resort Municipality of Whistler update its affordability study on an annual basis.
Part of that work has included calculating what he calls a "basket measure," which includes expenses such as food, clothing, footwear, shelter, transportation and other household needs. It's a measure that has already been utilized by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, and for Whistler's calculation, Wilson has included expenses like ski passes and other recreational costs.
Taking into account the above costs, Wilson was able to calculate an hourly wage of about $20 that would be enough to cover all the expenses for living in Whistler. That's a wage he calculated for a family of two working parents, a 13-year-old and a nine-year-old.
And that's a wage he was able to calculate without taking daycare into account. When you throw that in the basket, Wilson said it could add another $2 or $3 to the hourly wage.
Asked for his thoughts about the living wage, Wilson said, as an individual, that he thinks it's something worth striving for, but it shouldn't be done at the expense of a business owner.
"I would agree with the concept of a living wage for workers as well as for employers," he said. "In a town like Whistler where lease rates are so high, often the employers may not be being paid a living wage either."