By Karen Chong (she/her), BCTF staff, Professional and Social Issues Division
We all know that students who come to school clothed, fed, and with all their basic needs met before they walk through the door have the best opportunity for success. The students most at risk in our school communities are those who go without on a daily basis, because the systemic disadvantages of low wages and high living costs mean their families struggle to provide necessities. And those students may be more common in our classrooms than we realize.
A living wage is defined as the hourly amount needed to cover basic expenses for a family consisting of two full-time working parents with two young children. Government benefits and deductions are accounted for when calculating a “bare bones” budget including food, shelter, childcare fees, transportation, and other basic household expenses. The budget calculation does not include debt payments to credit cards and/or loans, nor savings for retirement or a child’s future education.
The calculated living wages across southern BC are significantly higher than the current provincial minimum wage, most notably for Metro Vancouver at $20.52/hour and Victoria at $20.46/hour. The $15.20/hour minimum wage does not come close to meeting even the lowest calculated living wage of $16.33/hour for the Nanaimo region in 2021. This considerable discrepancy has an extensive and detrimental effect on the well-being of our students and their families, and further perpetuates low-wage poverty in our province.
Throughout the province, the average rise of the living wage since 2019 is $1.02. This increase is largely due to the rising cost of housing, utilities, tele-communications, and food prices. The living wage was not calculated in 2020 because of disruptions in employment and unpredictable expenses caused by the pandemic. It is notable that living-wage calculations would have been higher if it were not for the pandemic-related, government-mandated rent freeze restricting rent increases between April 1, 2020, and January 1, 2022.
The positive impacts of public policy changes enacted since 2018 are reflected in this year’s calculation. Significant childcare investments, the elimination of MSP premiums, and the new BC Child Opportunity Benefit, along with small changes to government taxes and transfers, were crucial in offsetting increasing expenses for families with young children. These policies were especially important throughout the pandemic, as food and home insecurity increased for low- to mid-income families.
For our most vulnerable students and their families, especially in these unprecedented times of environmental devastation during an ongoing pandemic, the good will of individual teachers or school communities is not enough to solve the issues of low-wage poverty. Teachers know very well the effect of poverty on students’ health and ability to succeed in school. We are slowly making progress as more BC employers become living-wage employers, but we must continue to push the government for appropriate minimum wage, affordable housing, and further policy changes to eradicate low-wage poverty once and for all.
For more information about Living Wage Employers of BC or to read the 2021 Living Wage Report, visit www.livingwageforfamilies.ca.