All posts by Mark Holmgren

About Mark Holmgren

Mark Holmgren is the Executive Director of the Edmonton Community Development Company.

Livable Income IN a Livable Economy (Part Two: the Impacts of AI)

Last November I published a blog on the Edmonton CDC website and more recently repeated that posting here on Anticipate. Reading it first is, I suggest, of value to fully engage this posting.

The title of this posting reflects my interest in getting language “right.”

Living Wage and Livable Income are not synonymous. The latter includes the former and ensures we are considering those who do not earn wages and rely on pensions and/or government income security programs.  A livable economy is one that benefits society as a whole, not just those at the top of the income scale.

One of the biggest threats to a livable economy and the chance for people to have a livable income is technology and in particular Artificial Intelligence.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is reducing the need for human intelligence and interaction. Systems and processes are fast becoming less reliant on human presence and more dependent on technologies that eliminate human error and/or just make things cheaper to do.

There are those who suggest that the disruptions caused by technologies are dramatically improving:

  • health for people; witness how much longer people are living (in the Western world in particular);
  • learning and education;
  • how we network and communicate;
  • convenience as in “Siri, how do you spell, perpendicular?” while offering us more choice (e.g. Skip the Dishes or Uber instead of just taxis);
  • the quality of products and services by eliminating human error; and
  • the bottom line by reducing labour costs and increasing profits.

We could debate the points above, but let’s assume all of the above is markedly accurate. Perhaps these are primarily positive impact of AI and other technologies, but the question for me has to do with the yin and yang of technological advances and their disruptive nature.

Technology proponents will point to the job creation that techno-firms provide and suggest that those jobs will replace the jobs lost because of technology. Some will admit there will be a structural skills gap in the workforce for a generation or so, but that everything will even out in the long run.

Maybe this evening out will happen over time, but it is hard to imagine that technology firms will be leading the way to structural reform that benefits workers who are being replaced.

Overall, it appears that technology is about the overall reduction of human workers in the market place. Currently much of this displacement is focused on low-skilled jobs, but don’t fool yourself. How long will it take robots to take these jobs:

  • Insurance underwriters and claims adjusters
  • Bank tellers and representatives
  • Financial and marketing analysts
  • Researchers
  • Inventory managers
  • Farmers
  • Taxi drivers and truck drivers
  • Bookkeepers
  • Lawyers
  • Pharmacists
  • Manufacturing workers
  • and more

If you believe technology will benefit you economically, you might be right, but overall the evidence to date indicates things don’t look so rosy down the road. Consider the following US data, based on a report about the impact of digital technologies on productivity and job growth —  in the MIT Technology Review.

The chart is a bit difficult to read but basically until 2000, the gap between productivity and employment in the United States has been fairly consistent and representative of a connection between jobs and productivity.  Since 2000, productivity has increased while jobs have pretty much remained at 2000 levels. That might be great news for big business, but far less so for workers.

Not only has the job trend not kept up with productivity, we can see a longer trend of significant GDP growth in the United States while household income has remained relatively flat since 1990. This chart indicates more economic achievement for the economy that is not benefitting workers at a corresponding rate, which frankly is one key factor in the significant income inequality that exists in the United States. Continue reading Livable Income IN a Livable Economy (Part Two: the Impacts of AI)

Summoned to Jury Duty

A few weeks ago, I received my first ever jury duty notification. It really is a summons and it speaks with authority, with warnings of serious consequences if you fail to respond or show up on the designated day and time at Court Room 317.  Instructions and explanations were pretty good, but it was all rather cold. Who likes an invitation with an or-else clause?

I think serving on a jury is a civic responsibility, but with limits of course — people have lives to live after all —  but more about that in a bit.

I thought of mailing my notice back requesting an exemption because I am  so very busy and of course undeniably necessary (I’m smiling). But I didn’t. I wanted to see what happens when called to jury duty. I had a bit of this weird Perry Mason thing going on inside of me. I was curious and I did feel obliged to go. Continue reading Summoned to Jury Duty

Living Wage IN a Livable Economy

Originally posted in November 2018 on the Edmonton CDC Blog.

In Edmonton, approximately 140,000 workers are identified as low income earners (earning below $16.31 per hour), according to the Edmonton Social Planning Council (source, page 79). Four in five of these workers are over the age of 20 and 60% are women.

The Canadian Payroll Association’s annual survey of Canadian workers identifies that in any given year 45% to 50% of workers across our nation are living pay check to pay check and would face significant hardships, including the loss of their residence, if they went without their pay check for one or two pay periods.

These two sets of data are not indicative of an economy that is working for the majority of Canadians. While businesses may report continued increases in profits and gains for shareholders, this data questions those who laud our economy as strong, vibrant, and sustainable.

For more than a decade, communities across Canada have been setting a “living wage” for their community and advocating for employers to adopt the “living wage” as the minimum hourly wage that they pay their employees. Key players in the development of the fledgling living wage movement have included the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Tamarack Institute’s Vibrant Communities Canada, Vibrant Communities Calgary, Vibrant Abbotsford, the Living Wage for Families Campaign, and Living Wage Hamilton.

A “living wage” is different than the “minimum wage”. The minimum wage is legislated by governments, while a living wage is voluntary and based on what workers in a family must earn to pay for the “basic cost” of living in their community. The primary focus has been on identifying a living wage for two parents (both working full-time) who have one child in full time day care and one child in before and after-school care. Continue reading Living Wage IN a Livable Economy

THERE’S MORE TO DO TO IMPROVE AISH, ISN’T THERE?

I was at the gathering where Premier Notley and Minister Sabir announced legislation that would improve benefits to recipients of AISH. I support these improvements (read more). My math indicates a 6% increase to the AISH benefit. Some critics say it should have been higher, given the length of time since the last increase. Some say the government could have brought in these changes earlier.

Of course there are others who would choose to reduce AISH benefits while increasing the coffers of the wealthy through tax breaks.

Everybody’s got their opinion on how things should be if they were in charge. If only Premier Notley and her colleagues could accommodate all of us!

I see the changes as a positive development, an additional program reform that will help vulnerable Albertans. I wish the bump had been bigger, but the government has a budget to contend with. The indexing to the cost of living is an appropriate way to ensure that adjustments are made each year. That’s a big change for the better.

Most of us who work in the community change sector, in particular those who work to end poverty, homelessness, and the poor treatment of the marginalized are expressing support for the government’s actions. Some are celebrating it.  Sure, I will clink a glass or two to celebrate the changes, but let’s make sure we see this change as a strong beginning to a path forward toward further reform. We are not done yet, right?

I saw one suggestion via Twitter that folks on AISH should receive the equivalent to the minimum wage that the government requires employers to provide. At 35 hours a week that would amount to $27,300 per year. The increased AISH benefit translates to an annual income of $20,220. There is merit in this idea. If  one believes that an Albertan worker should be entitled to a minimum wage of $15 per hour, why are people on AISH deserving of less? On the other hand, $20,220 is above the poverty line (as of 2015) of $18,213.

The problem with poverty lines is that they are about subsistence in the present. They do not factor in the future of recipients of AISH as they grow older. They do not allow for emergencies in the many forms they manifest in people’s lives. They do not allow saving any money or having the means to do much more than survive.

Survival is not living. Survival is surviving.

AISH should promote more than survival.

What concerns me is that AISH is not really a disability pension that the recipient can count on. Let me provide an example. It’s a real one, not made up. Names have been changed.

John and Mary are married. Mary has a teenage son from a previous marriage and together they have a three year old. Mary is on AISH. Well, actually she is and she isn’t. John has been a low income earner until recently. Each month Mary’s benefit was adjusted (i.e. clawed back) based on John’s monthly income, which varied month to month.

Recently John got a better job that pays reasonably well. His income is still far below the Alberta average, but he is making enough to trigger AISH reducing Mary’s AISH benefit to zero. If one does the math for this family, it is in effect no farther ahead than then when John earned lower wages. I am not suggesting AISH should never be adjusted downward based on family income, but I do wonder if it is appropriate to wipe  it out.

Wiping out the benefit says to Mary, you no longer deserve your own income. You no longer have status with AISH decision-makers and should be happy now being totally dependent on your spouse. And for John who is trying to make a better life for his family, the message is your wife is now your burden. Your extra wages should not benefit your family; they should reduce the cost of Mary on the government.

I have a problem with that.

Doesn’t the claw back marginalize Mary? And John? And their children?

If Mary earned the minimum wage, an employer would not reduce it because John is making more money than he once was.

To be honest, I am not sure how this should work, but how it works now seems wrong to me. AISH recipients are people, not just recipients. Having their income reduced to zero impacts the dignity of people like Mary who want to feel like they are able to contribute to their family’s economic life and future.

Perhaps there are further reforms to consider. Perhaps there is a “middle way” to adjust AISH benefits downward as family income increases. Perhaps there should be a core benefit that never can be eliminated or that should only be eliminated if the family’s income is on par with the average wage of Albertans. Or something like that.

What do you think?

A BIG fail of our Media

Today I attended the announcement by the Alberta Government that it would be raising the AISH benefit by near $100 per month and indexing it to the cost of living from here on out. Premiere Notley spoke. Minister Sabir spoke. A gentleman on AISH spoke. Michael Phair, Co-Chair of End Poverty Edmonton spoke. You can read about these changes HERE.

This announcement, while long over due, is a positive step forward toward treating 250,000 Albertans with due respect. Along with other programs brought in by the government to attack poverty, the announcements today represent one more effort to turn away from marginalizing vulnerable Albertans.

There was a large contingent of media present in the room and via teleconference. One might think that when the media show up to such an announcement they are coming to report on what is being announced. When the floor opened up to questioning, the media decided to hijack the proceedings and grill the Premiere about disgruntled MLA Robyn Huff who was booted from caucus. She has indicated that she felt bullied by the Premier and others, although from what I can tell offered no real evidence of bully-ism.

That said, my point is not to weigh in on that situation but to point out how at least four representatives of the media ignored this important announcement about improved income security benefits to 250,000 vulnerable Albertans and, instead,  decided marginalized people like AISH recipients were not worth their time and energy as reporters. Rather, they opted to  assail the Premier with a suprise attack on her character and the character of the government.

Apparently one disgruntled MLA was far more important and newsworthy than the positive impacts the government’s actions will have for a quarter of a million people. Perhaps improving conditions for those living in poverty, for those living with disabilities that disallow them to work are good news stories not worth discussing with the Premier, especially if a reporter might get a feather in her or his cap for somehow getting the Premier to look bad as the leader of our province.

If there was any bullying occurring in the room, it was by the media. It was despicable and a clear statement by the media to 250,000 Albertans that “you do not matter.” It was a shameful act of marginalization.

I was so angry that afterward I went on a rant with the media people who behaved so poorly. They couldn’t even look me in the eye.  I was so angry, I failed to identify who these reporters were, but they know who they are. I can only hope their superiors investigate and make it clear such bad treatment of vulnerable Albertans is not what their media outlet cares to be known for.

Albertans deserve better.