Missing the mark

Most low-income families in Winnipeg not meeting the Acceptable Living Level

Melissa Bergen

In mid-February, Winnipeg Harvest and the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg released its Aceptable Living Level (ALL) report for 2012.

The 95-page document outlines a budget of basic needs for Winnipeg families and what they cost. Those needs include food, clothing and transportation.

It is important to note that the 2012 ALL report is the fourth of its kind since 1997.

What this report demonstrates, as the others did, is that low-income parents in Winnipeg - whether they are working or on welfare - do not have enough money to adequately feed, shelter and clothe themselves and their children.

This report also demonstrates that current welfare rates, even when federal child benefits are taken into account, fall far short of 2012 acceptable living levels ($38,000 for a family of three and $50,000 for a family of four).

It is no surprise, then, that two parents working full-time at minimum wage ($10.50 per hour) have incomes far below the 2012 acceptable living level.

The ALL report represents an effort to inform and educate the public on the realities of hunger and poverty in Manitoba from those who are living that reality.

The ALL report’s purpose is to determine how much disposable income is needed in the marketplace to buy a basket of goods and services that can sustain an acceptable living level.

The report suggests that every Manitoban has a right to an acceptable living level.

We have been brought up in the tradition that people who work hard will be rewarded, and yet, as we know, many parents who work hard at their minimum wage jobs cannot feed themselves and their children.

In fact, many of those parents turn to Winnipeg Harvest for food.

The report indicates that people on Employment and Income Assistance use a portion of their food budgets to pay for the rising costs of shelter.

In fact, half of Winnipeg Harvest clients are EIA recipients, one-fourth are on pensions and other fixed incomes, and 10 per cent report no income whatsoever.

The ALL report challenges Manitoba leaders and citizens to respond to the central issue - how can Manitoba ensure an acceptable living level for all of its citizens?

Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) suggests one mechanism in their report The View From Here: How A Living Wage Can Reduce Poverty In Manitoba.

The report notes that huge social dividends are yielded when employers pay their employees enough money to buy necessities.  In fact, for over a decade, as a result of union pressure, civic governments in many cities in the U.S. and in Hamilton, Ont., are providing living wages for their employees.

Why can’t the provincial government and the private sector do the same here?

The other method of dealing with poverty would be the establishment of a Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI).

Winnipeg Harvest has endorsed the concept of a GAI to the Senate Committee of the federal government. The Senate’s report, In From The Margins: A Call For Action On Poverty, Housing and Homelessness recommended that the federal government consider implementing a GAI for all Canadians.

One of the programs implemented by Premier Ed Schreyer during the 1970s was the Minimum Income Project, also known as Mincome.

According to research done into the GAI by Professor Evelyn Forget of the University of Manitoba, the people of Dauphin were enrolled in the Mincome Project from 1974 to 1978 with the following results: primary wage earners did not quit their jobs; new mothers gave themselves maternity leave before it was available through Employment Insurance; Grade 12 enrolment rates increased sharply; and hospitalization for accidental injuries and mental illness decreased dramatically.

In fact, Forget suggests that money saved on healthcare costs alone would more than justify spending on the GAI.

Even Senator Art Eggleton, co-chair of the Senate Committee that released the report, suggested that investing in a GAI would pay off in lower policing costs as well as lower healthcare costs.

By guaranteeing an acceptable living level for the people of Manitoba (and/or a GAI), our citizens and leaders would indeed be building a more inclusive and generous Canada.

Nick Ternette is a community and political activist, freelance writer and broadcaster. He is a member of the Public Education Committee of Winnipeg Harvest and lives at McFeetor’s Hall at the University of Winnipeg.

Published in Volume 66, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 14, 2012)

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