Tag Archives: end poverty edmonton

Let’s lock up the homeless, you know, for their own good

When I think of a “wellness” centre, I imagine a place where one might be able to exercise, see a nutritionist, take a course on personal development, learn more about parenting, or see a counselor. Some of you might imagine a wellness centre as something akin to a health spa where you can spend an arm and a leg to get your arms and legs massaged or exfoliated or poked with acupuncture needles.

remandMy guess is none of you would imagine a wellness centre as a place where inebriated homeless people are locked up in a cell without any due process of law and then set free a few hours later only to be re-arrested the next time they drink too much and the next time and the next time. This “wellness centre” idea is being promoted by the Edmonton Police Service and apparently a few agencies who serve the homeless. The hope is, among these groups, to use the Remand Centre for a new type of jail for the homeless. Yes, I know it’s being called a “wellness centre,” but let’s drop the spin and call it what it is.

Bissell Centre is not among this group by the way, just to set the record straight. We think criminalizing poverty and homelessness is, well, wrong. It’s wrong.

What the wellness centre advocates want is the Government of Alberta to enact legislation that would allow the police and perhaps others to bring, I imagine even with force, homeless people who are drunk directly to jail. No judge involved. No right to legal representation. Similar legislation exists in Manitoba and on some nights there is a line of squad cars waiting their turn to lock someone up.

I imagine some folks might think locking up homeless people is good for them, that it is somehow an expression of caring for them. But the proposed wellness centre won’t provide treatment of any kind and while it might be possible referrals are made to treatment centres, the fact is the wait for treatment centres is so long they offer little help or hope when people decide they are ready for treatment. In Winnipeg, people leaving that city’s version of a wellness centre are lucky to leave with a brochure in their hand, and maybe a kind word, or a friendly, “see you soon.”

Also, keep in mind that the legislation being proposed will also mean your brother, daughter, cousin, spouse, neighbor could also be locked up without due process.  That’s a little closer to home, right? That happens in Winnipeg. But I wonder, for example, if drunk hockey fans leaving our arena will face arrest or if the law would only be applied to the homeless man or woman hanging outside the arena on hockey night. After all the arena is not for them and how traumatic it would be for hockey fans to have to face the unpleasant aesthetics of homeless people.

An acquaintance told me recently that hockey fans who paid big bucks to attend a hockey game shouldn’t have to face beggars and drunks when walking to their cars or to the bus stop. My response was homeless people should not have to be homeless and then be jailed for that tragedy because hockey fans don’t like seeing their homelessness.

Here’s another thing to ponder. Nearly half of our homeless population is Aboriginal. In Winnipeg, Aboriginal people are by far the largest group jailed in its wellness centre, according to reports shared with me by visitors of that institution.

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Remember how our society once felt it was a great idea to snatch Aboriginal children up from their families and send them to residential schools (you do realize those kids were locked up there, right?). I think most of us know now how immoral and damaging it was to do that to people and kids. I worry and I suggest so should you that there is a small movement afoot to once again lock up Aboriginal people and others – you know, for their own good.

In today’s Edmonton Journal, there is an editorial on how the Ice District is displacing people, poor people to be frank and of course homeless people are the poorest of the poor. It’s worth a read – click HERE

The editorial references a promotional video of the “Ice District” which lauds the development. Here’s an excerpt:

“Interspersed with images from the yet-to-be-fully-realized neighbourhood is video footage from various existing downtown hot spots: restaurants, night clubs, coffee shops.

“But what Ice District’s video doesn’t highlight, unsurprisingly, are the multiple outposts in its vicinity that serve Edmonton’s homeless population — over 2,300 people, as of the fall of 2014.”

These outposts, which includes Bissell Centre and other inner city agencies devoted to helping those people the wellness centre would lock up don’t seem to matter to the many developers that are doing all of this work to cater to everyone but the poor. Just as the development is creating pressure on the homeless and also low income people to move along to “somewhere else,” it won’t be long before ideas are put forth about additional development that will be for the good of the city, which will also happen to include displacing organizations like mine.

When I heard the Katz Group decided to name the area the Ice District, I had a couple reactions. I did think how interesting it is that a multi-millionaire gets to name an area of my city. But more than that I thought what a fitting name it is for a district that by design is leaving the poor and the homeless out in the cold.

If you think it is right and just to lock up human beings without due process of law, the same laws you want to apply to you and your families, then you will be happy with what some groups want to create at the wellness centre.

But If you think it’s just wrong, if not immoral to do so, I encourage you to let your MLA know because last I heard the Alberta Solicitor General was looking into drafting this worrisome legislation – at least it was under the PC government. I am praying our new government will put a stop to that,

Some Questions: Minimum and Living Wage

Some short snippets to ponder:

None of the government contracts my organization currently has provide sufficient monies to provide my staff with an RSSP or pension plan. Funny though that every one we deal with about our government contracts is paid more than my staff and have a pension plan. Why is that?

I wonder how many of those employers (owners, senior staff) who decide it is cost-prohibitive to provide their workers with benefits have company benefits themselves?

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Look at how many Alberta-based companies already offer a living wage to their employees. Some small businesses in the mix as well as major non-profits. Click HERE.

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The Fraser Institute believes that child care costs are not the basic costs of raising a child. Here is what they say: “The exclusion of daycare costs from the list of needs using the budget standard approach is not because daycare is not a legitimate expense for households with children but mainly because many families with children will have little or no daycare costs. For example, in some two parent (intact) families, one parent may decide to stay at home to care for a pre-school child or children. In other cases, parents may have free daycare at their place of employment or have a close relative who cares for pre-school children. For school-age children, there are again a number of low-cost (or no-cost) options for parents” (Source: Page 40 of this report).

Interesting perspective when considering that the lack of affordable day care for low income or poor families keeps them out of the job market. The idea that most families can send their kids to somewhere free (like have a relative or friend take care of them) is, I suggest, a weak argument. Many poor people live in isolation, have no family support. What do you think of what Fraser Institute is saying?

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Some people don’t want to go with a living wage because they believe the economy can’t pay a living wage. It could be true. However, two things to ask yourself. Often these same voices talk about how great our economy is doing. How great is an economy that cannot pay a living wage? Second, whether or not it is affordable, a living wage is based on what it costs to live. It is not tied to affordability of the economy; it is tied to the affordability of living.

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Isn’t expendable income critical to the economy? If so, why are we content to have more and more people just barely able to get by, if that? How is that good for business?

What is your slant on this. Leave a comment below.

What does “living” mean in a Living Wage?

The Edmonton Social Planning Council just published research that indicates the living wage in Edmonton should be $17.36 per hour for a two-parent family with young children and both parents working 35 hours per week. The monthly budget prepared for this sample family assumes both workers are making $17.36 per hour.

Before going further, setting a living wage is a complex undertaking. No matter what number the Council came up with, people can quibble. It’s easier to pick at the budget the Council did for the family or point at suppositions that unduly biased the formation of a recommended number.

There are two major qualifiers to the recommended living wage. First, the monthoneofthekeyly budget for this family is a “conservative estimate,” according the Council. I agree but add that sometimes there are budget lines that seem to be more barebones than conservative (e.g. health and dental costs, school fees, to name two). Also, as the report notes, certain expenses were not included in the development of the family’s budget: debt payments, savings for the children’s education, retirement savings, any type of vacation (no matter how frugal), and it seems very little to support family recreational activities.

One might quibble about recreational expenses being included, although one of the fundamental principles of setting a living wage is to factor in the costs of “belonging” or what jargon-heads like me call “social inclusion.”

That said, how realistic is it to assume people who need a living wage have no debt and why would saving for retirement or for the education of children be viewed as unessential to “living?”

My remarks are not criticisms of the Council’s research, which as usual, is very well done. The authors used respected sources and produced a living wage recommendation based on accepted methods of doing so. By being consistent with how other provinces and cities are determining their living wages, the Council is able to provide a local version of a living wage based on best practice.

However, I am questioning the presuppositions of the research that allow best practice to ignore debt, education for children, and retirement as legitimate “living” expenses. Sometimes I wonder if we actually see a living wage through a welfare lens. That lens would have us ensure that recipients of welfare type programs don’t live large off the public purse. Typically that sentiment results in income security benefits being too low and in some cases so low the benefit is more akin to punishment than resembling anything close to “security.”

A living wage is not a welfare program. It should be based on what it costs to live a reasonable quality of life. A living wage should allow parents to invest in the future of their children. If people don’t save for retirement, they will cost society more later on. Shouldn’t a living wage be about now and tomorrow?

The other big question we may wish to consider is this: the recommended $17.36 per hour living wage is actually a subsidized living wage for a family of four. That family would require $1,100 per month in government transfer payments and child care subsidies to break even each month. To pay their own way completely, these two parents would have to average roughly $21.00 per hour each to live without any subsidies or transfers.

Oh yes, the question: which is the real living wage? $17.36? Or $21.00?

The lower of the two wages results in the family costing the “system” $13,000 plus per year. At $21.00 they would be paying taxes of about $10,000. That’s quite the turn around.

I am a proponent of government transfer payments and subsidies for child care, but believing these are needed programs does not mean we shouldn’t wonder about when they should and should not be deployed. It can’t just be carte blanche and on the flip side the answer isn’t to abolish them. Also, we should look into who benefits from the transfers and subsidies. I suggest it is not only the two parents in the above example.

Let’s face it. The living wage “debate” is contentious. Businesses that pay low wages are generally against raising the minimum wage in Alberta to $15.00, much less consider paying a true living wage. One argument is that businesses will have to raise prices to maintain their operations and that consumers will have to pay for the increase anyway or that jobs will be lost.

Another argument is that low costs drive profits which fuel the economy and benefit everyone. It’s one of the most common arguments for maintaining poverty wages. I have to say the argument looks good on paper, but lacks sufficient proof to become an incontrovertible economic principle.

There is a host of data that indicates the economy is working far better for those already making good incomes and hardly at all for the majority of citizens. I think it is reasonable to expect the economy to work for the majority; that doesn’t mean we all make the same thing. But consider the following data from the report or other sources:

  • Just over 100,000 Edmontonians are considered to be living in poverty, based on 2012 data.
  • Three in five of Alberta children living in poverty are from families in which one or both parents are working. That’s the highest rate in at least 20 years.
  • 20% of employed Edmontonians (124,000) earned less than $15 per hour in 2011.
  • Various studies indicate that approximately half of wage earners in Canada are living pay day to pay day and are vulnerable to losing their home if a disaster hit their families (Source: Canadian Payroll Association). In Edmonton, that would be up to 350,000 workers.

These four data points indicate that the economy is not benefiting the majority of citizens, but there is one more piece of data that further drives this home. As noted on page four of the report, “income inequality in Edmonton Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) is growing in line with provincial and national trends. Between 1982 and 2012, the bottom 50% of tax filers saw a 3.3% increase in their real median incomes compared to a 50% increase for the top 1% and a 137% increase for the top 0.1% of the population (Statistics Canada, 2014a).”

profoitsbynatureThere are many obstacles in the way of ending poverty, which means there is no single solution that we can all rally behind. We are fond of saying poverty is a complex problem and it’s true, but complex problems ride on top of diverse perspectives, values, and biases. Agreeing that the problem is complex is fairly easy to do but agreeing on the complexity of solutions is quite another thing.

We end up in polarizing arguments across sectors that disallow sufficient transformational thinking while deepening the ideological divide among sectors, political parties, and community leaders.

Not all social problems are connected to economics, but most are. One of the basic economic principles I think we should talk about is that the economy should work for the majority. If it doesn’t – and admittedly that’s my assessment – then don’t we need to look at how our economy is structured, how workers are treated, and how we can also grow profits to fuel growth and equitable benefits for everyone?

As mentioned before, the proposed living wage of $17.36 is actually a subsidized living wage. It’s easy to identify how the government transfer payments and child care subsidies help families make ends meet. But don’t the subsidy/transfer arrangements also benefit employers and in particular businesses that earn big profits?

I saw a tweet a bit ago from a business leader who said something like “businesses set prices to achieve the highest ROI.” If that’s a fundamental position of business leaders, then wages become a cost centre more than an investment in people and the general feeling about costs is to keep them as low as possible.

And if the desire for the highest ROI means that wages are kept so low to help produce higher and higher profits, don’t the subsidies received by our two parent family also subsidize the costs of business operations?

I understand that many businesses cannot pay a $21 per hour living wage. No doubt some would go out of business; others would scrape by instead of producing a reasonable profit. Special interest groups like Chambers of Commerce will say it isn’t fair to do that to businesses.

But… is it fair that tax payers pick up the difference?

Again, many of the same special interest groups decry raising taxes, especially corporate taxes.

These two positions seem incongruent to me. In an economy that is growing wealth for the wealthy and relying on subsidies and transfer payments to top up wages that are inadequate for workers to live on, who is supposed to pay for that?

One of the key questions in the living wage debate should be at what point are tax payers subsidizing insufficient wages paid by profitable businesses? And once we understand what that point is, how do we feel about that?

There is a lot of data that indicates a strong correlation between social and health problems and the growing income gap across the world and in our country. Generally speaking the greater the divide the more we see persons of low income imprisoned. Health problems, including mental health issues, increase as does social isolation. None of these things are good for the economy, are they?

If our community is serious about ending poverty – and I do believe a growing number of people across all sectors are serious about it — we won’t accomplish this noble goal without questioning and changing our perceptions and values around terms like “healthy economy,” “profits,” and “return on investment.”

The challenge is not to create equal income across the population. There will always be those who benefit more from the economy than others. In fact, we need income variances in order to fuel economic growth. The more risk one takes, the higher the rewards should be. The question is how far is too far in terms of the growing income gap in our country and across the globe?

What do we believe an economy should look like that has equitable benefits to all citizens?

I have worked for years in the human services sector and my primary focus has been on serving the poor and the homeless. On occasion over the course of my career I have experienced people who point to food bank users driving away with their hamper in a late model vehicle. Some tell stories of people on welfare driving the proverbial Cadillac. These stories are invariably used to demonstrate that the poor are not really poor and worse, they are something akin to a gold digger.

The inference is tax payers shouldn’t have to subsidize that kind of expenditure. And to be honest I agree with them, though their outrage is sourced in a very, very small minority of “poor” people.

whatdowebelieveThere is a flip side to such simplistic analysis. Why is it we don’t wonder why tax payers should subsidize workers so that CEOs and business owners can pay workers the minimum possible while driving their Mercedes to their mountain cabin?

Please understand I am not pitching that the for-profit sector is nefarious or driven primarily by greed or a lack of concern for employees. But I am trying to offer some balance to many voices that cite gloom and doom at a $15 per hour minimum wage, which I assume will only resound much louder at the living wage proposal of $17.36.

Poverty is not just a social problem or the result of personal defects. It is very much an economic problem and if we don’t address that in significant ways, let’s stop thinking we can end poverty through more collaboration and collective impact initiatives and leave the economy as it is.

But also let’s stop thinking that an economy that increasingly benefits a few will be sustainable. There is a tipping point and I think we all would be better served to avoid it.

How to End Poverty

You might expect a post by this title would include narrative about income, jobs, housing, child care, transportation, education, health services and so on. It is true we need to address these areas (and more!) if we are to end poverty. But the challenges we face are less about the actions above and the barriers we face in terms of resources.

We are the challenge. And by that I also mean we are the barrier to what we claim we want to do.

And who is “we”? Honestly, those of us who are not poor are the challenge we must address to end poverty.

I imagine some of you might wonder, “Hey what about poor people? “Aren’t they the reason why they are poor and disadvantaged?”

Of course there are poor people who have contributed to their own suffering. Sure, there are poor people who have made or still are making bad decisions.

This posting is not about excusing the poor from participating in their own solutions.

It’s about not excusing ourselves – the rest of us who have enough, often more than enough, sometimes such excess that the juxtaposition of opulence to poverty is unnerving. Continue reading How to End Poverty