A rather dismal statistic has been making the rounds of the internet recently: There is not a single American state in which a minimum wage job will provide sufficient earnings to pay the rent on an average two-person apartment. The findings are summarized in the image below:
In 2011, there were 73.9 million people in the United States making minimum wage. Some of them, admittedly,were teenagers supported by their parents, but just under half of American minimum wage workers are over the age of 25. There are undoubtedly cheaper housing options than the two-bedroom apartments cited in the figure above and that might work for some, but remember that this figure only considers rent. After working enough hours to pay for an apartment, a minimum wage earner must somehow find the money for utilities, food, clothing transportation, health care, and other costly necessities. If you consider the situation of a minimum wage earner with dependants or living in a particularly expensive city then the choice becomes very stark: Either live in inadequate conditions, or work obscenely long hours.
The American situation is clearly a disaster to be avoided, so I was curious as to how this would turn out in the Canadian context. I found minimum wage information on Wikipedia and average rent data from the Canada Housing and Mortgage Commission, and compiled the results in the map below:
Thankfully, we do much better than the Americans. It is possible to afford a 2-person apartment with a 40 hour minimum wage work-week in all Canadian provinces. This does not mean, however, that there is no room for improvement. Alberta and BC leave their minimum wage workers less than 15 hours per week after housing to pay for all their other expenses. The situation is worse in major cities, with Torontonians, Calgarians and Vancouverites all requiring more than 27 hours per week to afford an apartment. While we fare better than the United States, there is still ample room for minimum wage workers to face a dilemma between working enormous amounts of overtime or facing material deprivation
Many conservatives will likely quibble with this assessment and suggest that minimum wage workers have a third option: simply get a higher paying job. This argument has been a central point of the Conservative response to the Occupy movement. Here’s an example from I am the 53:
The message behind these anecdotes is generally something along the lines of, “If I can do it, why can’t you?”, and it is based on a romantic misunderstanding of how job markets work. While it is true that there are many inspiring rags-to-riches stories similar to this one, it is also true that they are the exception rather than the rule. That is why we have a word for people like the guy in the picture above: exceptional.
We can’t all start from humble beginnings and become successful, self-made business leaders. No matter how determined and hard-working we become, there will always be some people sweeping floors for the simple reason that floors will always need sweeping. Some people will be unable to push themselves to higher incomes due to extenuating circumstances such as health problems or language difficulties. Others will have tried, failed, and found themselves back where they started with the bonus of a bad credit rating. Still others actually enjoy sweeping floors and have no interest in other jobs. Nobody should be punished with a low standard of living simply because their skills or circumstances have placed them into a low-paying career.
There is nothing wrong with the fact that our society depends manual labour. Those who, for whatever reason, earn their living by the sweat of their brow deserve a great deal of respect for the important services they provide. But that respect must go beyond mere words. Working people should be able to comfortably afford a decent living space, a healthy diet, convenient transportation, education, and the occasional indulgence. They should, furthermore, be able to provide all these things to their children and should be able to do so without working unreasonable hours. We should pay close attention to how many hours a minimum wage workers must work for their basic necessities, and be prepared to respond with government action if that number gets too high.