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Lethbridge, Alberta: Local wages keeping many in poverty
Lethbridge Herald
Jamie Woodford

September 2, 2011
View the Original Article

One in every six Lethbridge workers is living in poverty, according to a provincial watchdog of citizen's interests.

Public Interest Alberta (PIA) released new data from Statistics Canada that showed Lethbridge has the second-highest amount of low-wage workers in the province, earning less than $12 an hour - a "living wage" that would earn workers enough money to meet his or her needs and sustain themselves in the current economy.

"And minimum wage does not enable an individual or a family to do so," said Lorinda Peel, Lethbridge community mobilizer for PIA.

Alberta's minimum wage was increased from $8.80 to $9.40 per hour on Sept. 1, but it's not enough to support people in poverty, according to the organization.

Of the 40,500 people employed in the city, 7,200 or 17.8 per cent are making less than $12 an hour compared to the provincial average of 13.9 per cent.

And it's not just young people that are affected, Peel pointed out. The majority (67 per cent) of low-wage workers in Lethbridge are in their prime earning years, she said, adding 66.7 per cent of those are women.

"They're usually people who are either trying to go through school or people who are trying to sustain families."

Twenty-one per cent are between 20 and 24 years of age; 25 per cent are between 25 and 45; while 21 per cent of low-wage workers in the city are over 45. Peel pointed out the minimum-wage issue doesn't just affect people personally, it affects the entire community.

"It's a lot bigger than people may realize," she began.

"If you want to decrease the income gap between the working poor and lower- and middle-income people, increasing a minimum wage would be a way to do that," she said. "It's a step in the right direction to alleviating poverty and decreasing the need for public social assistance and welfare programs."

She said having more people on a living wage would act as a sort of prevention before people just getting by require government assistance down the road.

Although Peel didn't have numbers to compare Lethbridge to other Alberta cities, she said the fact Lethbridge had the highest amount of low-wage workers until this year says a lot. "I've heard that Lethbridge has a lower cost of living here, but still, if you're trying to get by at under $12 an hour, or pay tuition fees (working for) under $12 an hour, it's doesn't matter that people say (there's) a lower cost of living in Lethbridge, it's still not something that's doable," she said.

Zack Moline, president of the University of Lethbridge Students' Union, said although the recent minimum wage increase is a positive step, it's not enough for those working to pay off tuition and living expenses while attending school.

"It's not a living wage," he said. "Essentially the minimum wage doesn't really factor in the real costs that students face, or that people that are working on minimum wage with families face as well."

He said a student would have to work more than 600 hours at minimum wage to pay for one year of tuition.

"That doesn't factor in other costs of living such as food, rent, text books or other educational costs," he added.

The province has instilled a lower minimum wage for liquor-related positions - a common job for students - starting at $9.05 where servers, bartenders and the like are expected to make up the difference with tips.

Moline said that makes it tougher for students to survive.

"It just goes to show that we are expecting students to work and to pay for a portion of their costs, but when minimum wage doesn't fully take into account the true costs that students are facing, it makes it overly difficult for them to afford it, and in the end makes them less likely to attend," he said, noting Alberta has the worst post-secondary participation rate in all of Canada.

"And I think (minimum wage) is just one of many reasons why," he said. "We want these students to be focused on their academics so that they can . . . contribute to society afterwards, but if they're having to work a minimum wage paying job for 30 hours a week during the school year just to make ends meet, that's obviously not a good thing."