Blog | February 07, 2014

The following is a speech from Alison Van Dyke, Community Mobilizer in Medicine Hat for Public Interest Alberta at the Medicine Hat College, NDP tour event with Brian Mason. She addresses needs for the 2014 Provincial Budget, including for poverty reductions and supports for people with disabilities.
Many people in our community are unaware of those among us struggling to keep their heads above water, to provide housing for themselves and their families, and to put food on the table. It's easy to assume that our small, seemingly affluent city, is almost entirely made up of middle or high-income earners if you look at the kinds of cars on the streets and large, luxurious homes being constructed in Desert Blume, Vista, The Hamptons and Terrace. But if you look a bit closer, at the homeless people killing time in the public library, the number of soup kitchens and emergency food services being used, and the need for community subsidized housing, you'll see something different. About 13% of Hatters are living in poverty, 9,310 people, which is higher than the Alberta average of 10.7%.We have four organizations providing daily meals and 6 locations providing emergency food in addition to the Medicine Hat Foodbank.From July 1st of 2013 to January 31st of this year, the Foodbank has had 1710 clients with 692 of those being unique visits, meaning 1,018 are returning clients. Those clients represent 3,592 people served by the foodbank, with 1,497 of those being children. The foodbank has distributed 141,286 lbs. of food into the community in that time. When speaking to Jim Turner, Executive Director of the Food Bank, he told me that they saw their numbers double from the previous months after last year's flood, as many at-risk families lived in the flood zone.Additionally, the Food Bank has started up a lunch program in the schools for children who don't have lunches. They currently prepare an average of 500 lunches/day with the expectation that they will have served 100,000 lunches in the 2013-2014 school year at 19 schools, 15 in Medicine Hat and 4 in Redcliff.I work for a non-profit organization, Community Food Connections Association, which oversees local initiatives such as the Good Food Club; a wholesale produce purchasing club; the Community Gardens; and Community Kitchens. We exist not as an emergency food resource, but to facilitate healthy living and food accessibility by teaching skills for self-sufficiency. We do however, encounter many people who are wanting to become involved with our programs because of low income, such as the working poor and seniors. And I usually receive several calls a week from people looking for food, often families in between jobs and pregnant women with little kids. You can hear the fear and helplessness in their voices.The United Way runs a Tools for School program for needy children to receive a backpack filled with a years worth of school supplies each September as they return to school. In September of 2013, there were 650 backpacks distributed, an increase from the previous year's number of 525.In addition to their annual fundraising for local non-profits, the United Way also received over $70,000 directly donated and distributed to last years flood victims; used to purchase clothing, bedding and appliances.As for housing, the waitlist for social housing remains high at 335 individuals. Additionally, there are another 6% or 1,760 Hatters at high risk for homelessness. Homelessness and hunger are a wolf at the door for so many people; just a job loss, divorce, illness or major vehicle repair away.Minimum Wage vs. Living Wage & Cost of livingMedicine Hat has the unfortunate distinction of having the highest number of low wage earners from the main cities of Alberta. One out of every three workers in Medicine Hat make $15/hr or less. There are 34,000 employed people in Medicine Hat, and of those, 11,900 are earning less than $15/hour. And 9000 of those are earning less than $13/hr.If you think that most of those low wage earners are high school and college students, you would be wrong. 6100 (or 51%) of those low-wage earners are between the ages of 25-44, prime years when people are raising families, trying to purchase homes, saving for retirement or their children's education. Another 3800 (or 32%) of those low-wage earners are over the age of 45.When Public Interest Alberta began releasing low wage data in Medicine Hat, I experienced a bit of push back from not only the business community, but the city itself saying that our wages didn't need to be as high, since our cost of living in Medicine Hat is lower. It is true that our cost of living is considerably less than other areas of the province. City owned utilities, combined with lower housing costs than many other communities do give us an advantage. On average it is approximately 20% cheaper to live in Medicine Hat than in Lethbridge, Red Deer, Calgary or Edmonton based on my calculations including housing costs, property taxes and utilities.However, despite those reduced costs, a recent study by Vibrant Communities found that Medicine Hat's current living wage is still higher than the minimum wage. A living wage is defined as the amount of income an individual or family requires to meet their basic needs, to maintain a safe, decent standard of living in their communities and to save for future needs and goals and devote quality time to friends, family and communities.The living wage in Medicine Hat is $13/hr/per parent for a two parent family. A living wage for a single parent is $19/hour or more, and a living wage for a single person with no dependents is $13/hr. All of which are far higher than the current minimum wage in Alberta which is $9.95/hr and only $9.05 for people who serve alcohol. I can tell you anecdotally that many people I know who are alcohol servers, particularly in family eating establishments, do not make up for in tips what they have lost in wages. My own sister worked at a local restaurant where she served liquor, and between non-tippers and tip pooling with kitchen staff, she went home with virtually no tip money most days.An increase of the minimum wage is actually not as detrimental to the economy as some people may think. It benefits employer's by improving productivity and reducing recruitment and training costs, as well as increasing the flow of money in the local economy. A person who is making barely enough to house, feed and clothe themselves is not going to be spending money at local small businesses. Additionally, studies have shown that increases in minimum wages do not greatly effect job losses or the ability to hire employees. People who earn minimum wage will find that a moderate increase in wages to a living wage can make all the difference in the world to their quality of life, while their employer's will find that it makes very little difference to their bottom line.Unions - Bill 45 & 46I would like to speak briefly on the Conservative's passage of anti-labour Bills 45 & 46 regarding the right for people to speak out about striking, and removing the ability for Public service unions to negotiate their contracts.Firstly, Bill 45 affects all Albertans, not just those in the AUPE. Under this Bill, I can be charged if I were to encourage a strike by public employees on my blog, in a letter to the editor, or by meeting with and encouraging union members to strike; and you can be too.Bill 46 removes the ability of the AUPE to negotiate a contract. The government can just legislate a contract without approval of the union. We've seen this on the federal level with postal workers and airline employees in the past, which has emboldened the provincial conservatives in their policies. This shows a blatant disregard for worker's rights. This legislation weakens not only the power of AUPE, but every union in our country and future collective bargaining proceedings.
This has sent employers a clear message that they no longer have to negotiate with unions, they can just ask the government to intercede through legislation in order to “preserve the economy” as apparently the economy supersedes all worker's rights.Some people say that the time of unions has passed, but I speak from personal experience when I say that employers still abuse their power over their employees when it suits their purposes. The economic downturn of 2008 has made it an employer's market. If you are unwilling to work unpaid overtime for example, they'll just find someone who will. People are desperate for work and will take what they can get and employers use that knowledge to their advantage.I've also heard people say, "Why should unionized workers get such a good wage and benefits, most people don't have that." What we should really be saying is, "Why doesn't EVERYONE have that?".It was a wonderful day when my husband got a union job. For the first time in years I could look to my future knowing that there was security: a living wage, dental and medical benefits for my children, insurance if my husband became ill and couldn't work, and at the end, a guaranteed pension.We cannot allow this Conservative government to continue destroying the livelihoods of those who work to provide Albertan's with a better life.Cuts to Services for Persons with Developmental DisabilitiesThere were rallies all over the province to protest the cuts to programs for persons with developmental disabilities (PDD). I am not going to talk about the logistics of how much and where and when. What I am going to talk about is the morality of these decisions.It has become more and more obvious as time goes on that this government has decided that unless they can affix a monetary value to something, it has no value. As they bowl over Albertan's rights, for the sake of "the economy" and their own agendas, they reveal their lack of concern with the humanity of our society. I hate to break it to them, but not everything is about economics.And I'm not just pointing at the Conservatives. In the last election Danielle Smith, the leader of the Wildrose Party, called the government "a corporation". I'm sorry, but it is not. I am not a customer of the government. A corporation's mandate is to make money for it's shareholders. At best, a government should hope to break even in order to provide services to it's citizens; lining their pockets with profits should never be their goal.It is both a personal affront to those individuals with developmental disabilities and a disservice to the people that work with them to suggest that they are not already contributing to our society and economy, and to propose that the only way they can is to close their day and respite programs and move them into the workforce.Sometimes a person's contribution is the opportunity they give society to sacrifice and serve them.Service to those in need of help teaches our society empathy and builds character, and that should be value enough.One of the Executive Director's of a local non-profit that works with people with disabilities here in Medicine Hat said that these cuts will return us to the days of parents having to lock their adult children in their basements while they go to work because they have no other options.What I deeply resent is that the current government has reduced individuals in our society to their monetary contributions, to a figure on a balance sheet. They are forcing us to lessen our humanity by focusing on only financial outcomes rather than social outcomes. We need to fight back by refusing to let them set a financial paradigm, instead shifting the focus back onto healthy families and communities. We have a moral obligation as a society to take care of each other.This government pays only lip service to those most vulnerable in our society. They fail to adequately provide resources for early interventions in healthcare and education by providing enough primary physicians, mental health resources, childcare and education supports in the classroom. They fail to maintain proper oversight in our senior's facilities and long-term care. Their main concern is oil and gas industry promotion, but even there they fail us by not ensuring fair compensation to Albertan's from OUR resources.What I said last year to this group on their tour hasn't changed:I feel more and more every day that we have a government that wants to wash it’s hands of the task of governing: by contracting, by outsourcing, by privatizing, and by offloading to non-profit organizations, the responsibility they have to their taxpaying constituents who employ them.I started with a lot of facts and figures about poverty in Medicine Hat, including many that reflected charitable contributions. As much as I would encourage you to donate to local foodbanks or back to school supply programs, these are only stop-gap measures in the fight against poverty. A box of pencil crayons or Kraft Dinner is a shortlived bandaid on the wound of constant poverty and isn't much help with paying rent, utilities, health costs, or putting away money for a child's college education or retirement. The way to alleviate poverty is not though increased charitable giving, but by changing the policy that keeps the poor downtrodden. To do that we must change who is making the policy to someone who values all citizens of Alberta, not just the movers and shakers of the oil and gas industry.Here are my suggestions for improving the lives of Albertans:1. Increase the minimum wage to a living wage.2. Reinstate the progressive income tax system.3. Collect petroleum royalties owed to us in order to fund our social programs and Heritage Trust Fund.4. Increase the Alberta Family Employment Tax Credit - The Alberta Family Employment Tax Credit (AFETC) is a program funded by the Alberta government to help working families provide for their children.