The cost of low wages? Poor health, says report

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For a minimum wage worker, how much does it cost to make a nutritious meal?

Let’s assume you’re a meat eater, and that you want at least one carb and one vegetable on your plate. You’ll also probably want something to drink. We’ll also assume you work in Ontario, where the minimum wage is $10.25.

To put together a meal of chicken, potatoes and carrots with milk to drink based on Canada’s average food prices, is going to run you about $16 -- just over an hour and half of work.

Apply the same test to trying to find a bachelor apartment. In Toronto, where the average rental rate is $873 a month, you would have to work 85 hours a month at minimum wage to pay for a bachelor apartment. That's slightly more than half a month's worth of regular, full-time hours. Whatever you have left over goes to food, utilities and other costs.

With that in mind it’s easy to understand why people would opt to take the crappier, yet cheaper, apartment, or perhaps eat off the dollar menu at McDonalds.

And these are just the averages.

The same person living on minimum wage in the far North is going to face much higher food costs -- milk can run up to $9 or $10 once you get into the Arctic circle. Or you might only work your minimum wage job 20 hours a week instead of the traditional 40, while relying on income subsidies to get by.

It is expensive to take good care of yourself in Canada. And the real cost? Human lives.

A Canadian Medical Association report from 2013 found that amongst people who made less than $40,000 a year, only 40 per cent said they lived in good health. And a 2013 Hamilton Spectator series on health care found a 21 year life expectancy gap between rich and poor areas of the city.

Poverty can be directly tied to multiple diseases, medical professionals argue, including cardiac diseases and diabetes.

And it has a cost for everyone that pays taxes in this country. Of the $200 billion spent on health care in Canada, the CMA estimates that 20 per cent of it is spent because of socio-economic disparities.

This is why it is crucial we have to ensure everyone has enough income to provide for themselves and their families.

To that end, on January 14, as part of an Ontario wide day of action, Health Providers Against Poverty went to the Ontario legislature to call on lawmakers to raise the minimum wage to $14 as part of a reportedly widespread province wide day of action.

Twitter was taken over by the hashtag #14now, and at the Toronto based Workers Action Centre -- one of the organizations that led the day of action -- they were swamped with calls of support.

"It was a really good way to show that its not just one sector calling for a minimum wage increase," says Sonia Singh. She’s an organizer at the Toronto Workers Action Centre, which is just one of the organizations working towards getting the minimum wage raised in Ontario. "It was great to see health providers come out to really clearly make the links between low-income and health."

She believes that thousands of people have signed petitions calling on the Ontario government to raise the minimum wage, though she couldn’t give a specific number as petitions are sent directly to legislators.

But raising the minimum wage may just be one part of the puzzle. "People are working in temporary, precarious jobs and they don’t always have enough hours to qualify for Employment Insurance," explains Singh. "So they are forced to go on social assistance."

That’s why an idea called basic annual income (BAI) could fill the gap that people fall into if they’re not working or unable to find full-time work.

Proponents of the idea would have it replace welfare and other income supplements. They argue that by providing enough so that people don’t have to worry about buying necessities, it will be easier for them to re-enter the workforce.

"In the long-term, the BAI also provides for those who choose to re-skill or upgrade their qualifications and thus could provide a real, tangible long-term benefit to our workforce," explains Dan Herman, Executive Director of the DEEP Centre, a Waterloo-based economic policy think tank.

Herman believes that the BAI would have positive impacts on the economy and health care -- the savings generated by less people accessing health care could go directly back into the BAI.

The CMA’s 2013 report actually recommended BAI as one of the steps that could be taken to reduce poverty related health problems. And the same day of the Raise the Minimum Wage campaign, a quieter Twitter campaign led by the Basic Income Pilot project took place, allowing users to ask questions about the feasibility of the program.

"A basic income takes us to the next level," agrees Singh. But raising the minimum wage is still incredibly important, if only as a first step towards providing fair wages for everybody.

Herman also recognizes it could be a struggle to get Canadians on board with a project that gives everybody money.

"Inherently most of us aren't keen on giving someone something for nothing," he says. "However, given the benefits seen on health and social outcomes, and the potential for significant administrative savings, the evidence tells us it's actually a very good public investment."

And for our hypothetical minimum wage worker, it could mean the difference between making the choice they have to, or the healthy one.

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Photo: flickr/David A. Riggs

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