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Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce

Niagara Poverty Reduction Network Chairman Glen Walker at his Queenston St. offices Tuesday April 19, 2016. Bob Tymczyszyn/St. Catharines Standard

Poverty advocates eye ‘living wage’

Niagara Poverty Reduction Network Chairman Glen Walker at his Queenston St. offices Tuesday April 19, 2016. Bob Tymczyszyn, St. Catharines Standard

Life in the region — and the paycheque needed to afford it — has been broken down into dollars and cents.

Niagara Poverty Reduction Network released a report Monday that pinpoints the wage that needs to be earned in order to meet the day-to-day expenses of living in Niagara.

The document, released one month after a related report detailing the cost of living in the region, says breadwinners within the average family of four must each earn $17.47 an hour at a full-time job in order to make ends meet.

Calculating the Living Wage for Niagara Region 2016 indicates the total household employment income — prior to tax and payroll deductions — required to support a local family of four is $68,147, or $34,074 per job.

The hope is that by bringing these figures to the forefront, a conversation will be started about where the community stands and where improvements can be made, said network chairman Glen Walker.

The evidence-based “living wage” was calculated based on the cost of basic needs in the area, such as food, shelter and clothing, as well as items that allow for fuller participation in society, including the cost of a cell phone and Internet, family leisure outings and recreation.

The report is intended to not only look at the wage people need to earn to cover expenses, but also at the “economics of what that implies,” Walker said.

“We have businesses that are struggling, we have a lot of unemployment and issues around poverty. We wanted to try and develop a report that provides a balanced commentary on what it looks like out there.”

Mishka Balsom believes the living wage figure calculated by the network is one many Niagara businesses would be unable to afford.

The president and CEO of Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce said many employers are faced with “slim margins of profit” and would face significant changes to their business models if the increased wage was implemented.

Whenever there is talk of minimum wage increases, Balsom hears concerns from the business community.

“This jump is quite significant,” she said while comparing the $17.47 living wage to the existing $11.25 minimum wage, which is set to increase to $11.40 an hour in October.

“Businesses can’t pay that.”

However, she acknowledged the network has reached out to some Niagara businesses who have put support behind the initiative.

NPRN isn’t “jumping up and saying this must be done,” Walker said, but is instead asking what role businesses, as well as employers in the not-for-profit and public sectors, can play to help promote change locally.

There are varying factors that would see that living wage flex, including whether medical benefits or life insurance are provided by an employer.

“It’s all about that package of support and services,” Walker said.

Balsom praised the report for highlighting issues “that make it so costly to live in Niagara,” including a lack of inter-municipal transit, which drives up transportation costs, and the high price of daycare.

The living wage rises as a result of those expenses, she said.

“If those issues were addressed, that rate would be significantly decreased. It becomes a completely different picture.”

A regional working group is currently in the process of developing a model for inter-municipal transit in Niagara to extend beyond an existing pilot project that is in place.

Balsom also credited the report for raising valid points about the likelihood that increase to a living wage would reduce staff turnover, staff training costs and absenteeism.

“But from a business perspective, you need to see the business case on that,” she said, adding more data is needed.

More information is also needed, she said, to determine how the wage increase would offset the more than $1 billion poverty it’s estimated to cost Niagara annually, how many businesses would need to come on board to make a significant impact, and how the living wage would fluctuate with different family dynamics.

She also hoped to see more detail about how many employers in Niagara are paying below living wage and how many employees would move from one pay bracket to another if the $17.47 minimum was introduced.

“There are a lot of businesses that are committed to working to reduce poverty but it can’t lie on the shoulders of the business community alone,” she said.

Balsom said the chamber is open to sitting down with network representatives, just as it did with basic income guarantee advocates, to discuss ways to improve quality of life for Niagarans.

“I think those are welcomed discussions,” she said. “We need to address poverty in Niagara.”

Getting as many residents as possible to that living wage mark begins with a conversation, Walker said, adding it’s a matter of finding the right strategies to get them there.

If that $17.47 mark is unmanageable, it’s a chance to discuss other methods that can be pursued to improve local cost of living, he said.

“It’s not just about wage. It’s about those expenses and what we can do about them. What other strategies can we put in place to lower costs on the other side of the pendulum.”

The full report is available at

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