Back in the winter, I wrote a column about rural poverty, living wage, and some United Way research about life in Huron and Perth Counties. I don’t usually get feedback from the columns that I write but that one did inspire a couple of people to make the effort to contact me. One person said that the column caused him to reflect and see things in a different way. The other person was furious with what I had written. Luckily for me, he took a few weeks to contact me and had admittedly cooled down somewhat – we knew each other from way back, and we kept our conversation on friendly terms.
He made some points that I agreed with – and I think I made one point that he agreed with. He told me I was a “bleeding heart liberal”, as if that would offend me. If that is defined by caring about your neighbours and those less fortunate, I agreed with him.
One point that he made that did bother me was that he felt attacked as a farmer. That was not my intent and I was surprised that he read that in what I wrote. I went back to the column to reflect and review:
“A living wage is the hourly wage a worker needs to earn to cover the family’s basic everyday expenses such as food, housing, utilities, transportation, and childcare. The calculation is based on the living expenses of a family of four with both adults working full time for 37.5 hours per week, once government transfers and deductions (income taxes, and employment insurance premiums) have been takeng into account. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), the living wage rate for Perth and Huron is $16.47 per hour in 2015 (livingwagecanada.ca).” Roughly half the households in Huron County make less than that (Perth-Huron Social Research & Planning Council, 2015).
This report also found that the sectors most likely to pay wages below the living wage were agriculture, retail trade, and accommodation and food services (livingwagecanada.ca). Other sectors reported what I have noticed myself – that it is hard enough to find workers that the living wage rate would be considered a “low bar” and the current labour market dictates that higher wages be paid.
These thoughts weren’t things I just pulled out of my head. They came from research done in our own communities. When I was writing it originally, I was wondering if perhaps a lot of those people in the agricultural sector making less than the living wage were the farmers themselves because so much work that is done on farms isn’t accounted for in any way. Farmers put in untold hours of unpaid labour because they are the business owners and the buck stops with them. Of course, many are also passionate about what they do and wouldn’t dream of doing things half way no matter what the pay rate. As an aside, The Economist (Tim Hortons and the Saga of Ontario’s Minimum Wage, February 8, 2018), points out that only seven per cent of Ontario workers earned the previous minimum wage anyway.
The first thing I learned in agricultural economics is that farmers are “price takers”, which basically means we take what we can get from the market and can’t pass our increased expenses on to our consumers. So even if farmers wish to pay higher wages, we are at the mercy of the market and other costs of production when it comes to determining wage rates. Products that require a lot of labour are obviously impacted very differently than those that can substitute capital for labour. If a living wage increases the cost of production, are Canadian consumers willing to pay more for that produce? Or will they buy the cheapest alternative imported from places with lower standards? Or will we just figure out ways to increase our technology and reduce our need to hire people at all?
My friend argued that it would be impossible for him to hire a student ever again because young people learning cannot be paid the same as someone with experience. Some jobs need to be done but they just aren’t worth paying someone a living wage to do them. The decision about this should be freely negotiated between the worker and the employer. If a worker is willing to take less to do a specified job, should they not be allowed to do that?
While I agree with that – I also think there is a place for some regulations. As someone who has employed people, been an employee, and witnessed my kids now entering the workforce, like most things in life, it is all about balance. If one side gets too much power, the other side is damaged, which in the long run, hurts everyone. We need competitive businesses, and we also need a safe working environment where workers have some measure of protection. You don’t have to look very far back in history to see why we have some of the regulations that we have. In spite of those modern regulations, my kids have had jobs where they were not treated well, where their employers were, in fact, breaking those laws, but they still did not want to rock the boat and risk losing that first vital job.
As we wrapped up our conversation, I told him that if my little column got him that riled up, he should consider going into politics himself. We all like to complain about how politicians of all stripes and at all levels do things. The one constant when it comes to politics is that no matter who is the leader, or which party is in power, eventually the public becomes fed up with them, kicks them out and usually votes in the complete opposite. We let them have their turn for a spell, the pendulum swings the other way, then the cycle repeats.
I encouraged my friend to get out there and run himself because what we desperately need is more engaged people – not just on election day – but during all the time in between. Most of us have no idea about the complexity of the job – and most politicians are there because they do want to make a difference in a positive way. I am sure it is a thankless and stressful job.
As our society becomes more and more complex, there are always more demands on the public purse. Throw in some unknown wildcards like natural disasters, demographics, aging infrastructure, unpredictable public opinion, and international politics and the issues become even harder to solve. In the background there is always the risk of unintended consequences that no one even considered in the decision making process.
In social studies, these are known as “wicked problems” and the deeper you delve into them, the more elusive a good decision is. Any decision is going to have positive and negative effects. Sometimes, as a society, we behave like little kids – we want the best services, we want our rights, but we want low taxes and don’t really care so much if our rights take away someone else’s. Politicians know all of this – and often make decisions that are popular, rather than right. Otherwise we kick them out.
Often when we get thinking about these things, we realize that they circle around and come back to us. Sometimes we need to look more broadly at the long term implications of these decisions past the next election cycle – what we want our society to look like for ourselves, our kids, and our grandkids. It is good to keep the conversation going, especially with people who have differing opinions. It helps to keep us all a little more balanced.◊