Is it time to discuss a ‘living wage’ in Revelstoke?

A packed room of service providers, business people and other concerned citizens listen to Revelstoke Social Development Coordinator, Jill Zaccharias, present statistics on poverty, affordability and responses to poverty in Revelstoke. Laura Stovel photo

By Laura Stovel

I remember a time, in the 1980s and 1990s, when Revelstoke was a place where a person could live with dignity with a modest income and not worry about how to make ends meet. I always felt proud of that quality in our community. People could work full time, meet their expenses without much worry, and focus on the important things in life: the good company of family, friends and neighbours; the beauty of our natural surroundings; and the joy of being creative.

For a growing number of Revelstoke citizens, that is not the case any more. Life in recent years has become a lot tougher.  Revelstoke has the highest rental prices in the Kootenays and amongst other comparable towns in BC’s southern interior, according to a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) Rental Market Survey. The Revelstoke Affordability Study, led by Mike Brown, found that food prices in town are 14% above the provincial average.  Yet wages for many workers – especially in the restaurant, hotel and retail sectors – remain stubbornly low. The stress on low-income workers and the unemployed results in less expendable income. This, in turn, affects local business – and their ability to pay a living wage to employees.

This was the subject of a workshop and consultation on Thursday, March 15, organized by Jill Zacharias, Social Development Coordinator for the Revelstoke Community Social Development Committee, in partnership with Learning Initiatives for Rural and Northern BC. The workshop, called Understanding and Reducing Poverty in Revelstoke, was attended by around 30 service providers, members of the business community and interested citizens. Guest speakers included seasoned anti-poverty workers Penny Goldsmith, executive director of PovNet BC, and Jim Sands, project coordinator for SPARC BC, who described the initiative as “historic” for a town of Revelstoke’s size in BC.

Based on tax filer data (annual statistics from income tax statements) from postal codes in Revelstoke and the surrounding regional district, 6% of all ‘couple families,’ 25% of all ‘lone-parent families,’ and 27% of all single individuals are low income, Zacharias reported. The low-income measure has been developed by Statistics Canada to indicate 50% of the median income of the area, adjusted by household size and type.

To put the low income measure into monetary terms for Revelstoke, Zacharias reported that low income couple families bring in $17,564 or less, lone parent families bring in $15,637 or less, and single individuals bring in $9,897 or less.  The average person on income assistance receives $7,000 a year, she said.

But what about the cost side of the equation? How far will this income go? Researcher Mike Brown used the Canadian standard measure, the Market Basket Measure, to determine this. The Market Basket Measure reflects the cost of “a basket of necessary goods and services” in the community. To determine this, local volunteer pricers, Lauren Goss and Jane McNab, went to local stores and priced a select list of necessary products. These prices were used to determine the Revelstoke Market Basket Measure, Brown said, and this data, in turn was used to determine a ‘living wage.’

Estimates of a living wage range from $11.92 ($19,606.40 annually before taxes) for a single male aged 19-30 who works 35 hours a week to $20.87 ($45,541.80 annually before taxes) for a single mom with a toddler, Brown said.

Brown’s estimate for the single male is probably low and could not apply to older, single people. It does not permit a vehicle – required for many jobs – and it only allocates $636.83 a month for shelter, a number that includes utilities. This kind of rental would almost certainly require a house sharing situation, something that is much more difficult to find for older single people or for single, divorced or separated people with part-time custody for children. An older person also needs to be thinking about a pension, savings and increased health care expenses. All these expenses would raise that ‘living wage’ for an average single person, working full time.

Browsing through the job ads on the Revelstoke Employment Services Job Site reveals many jobs that pay less than the $11.92 an hour minimum mentioned by Brown and many of these jobs are part-time, not the full-time position assumed in the study. Also, most of these low-paying are filled by women, who dominate the lower ranks of the retail, hotel and restaurant sectors.

Statistics Canada reports that the median income for women in Revelstoke has consistently been between half and two thirds of that of men. In 2009, that median income for women was $19,400 before taxes, compared with $33,110 for men. That median income for women, is just less than Brown’s low estimate of a living wage for a single person. (These statistics can be found in the City of Revelstoke’s Revelstoke Community profile:

If wages at the low end of the spectrum are less than a living wage, what is the impact on individuals and the community? As disposable income declines, so does expenditure on luxuries like coffees or meals out, new clothing, recreation and movies – the kinds of expenditures our small businesses rely on. People have to find other ways to meet basic needs.

Zacharias reported that in 2011, the Food Bank registered more than 8,000 visits and gave out 5,006 food hampers, up from 1,500 in 2006. The 2011 Food Bank Hunger Count, which provides a ‘snapshot’ of Food Bank use, found that there was a dramatic increase in Food Bank use in recent years and a steady increase in the number of children using the Food Bank. According to Food Bank coordinator, Patti Larson, 167 households used the Food Bank in March, 2011 and, of these, 97 were single people. Thirty-seven percent of those households had employment income.

Many organizations in Revelstoke have gone ‘the extra mile’ to help community members struggling with poverty, Zacharius said. The high school, for example, has food on hand for hungry students. They also have a washing machine, a drier and extra clothing so that students are able to launder their clothes if this is not available at home. And Okanagan College has received funds from Columbia Basin Trust so that low-income people can be sponsored to take courses to upgrade their work-related skills.

Is it time for a community-wide discussion about the need to provide Revelstoke workers with living wages and about how that can happen and still meet the financial needs of employers?  The Revelstoke Affordability Study and the Poverty Reduction Strategy workshop are important steps towards that discussion. Through the efforts of Zaccharias and Brown, we have solid data that we, as a community, can work with. Now it is time to take the next step to ensure that Revelstoke is, once again, a place where residents can reasonably expect to live a dignified life, free of extreme financial stress.