An Alternative ‘Families First’ Agenda: As Family Day approaches, policy ideas for Premier Clark to truly help BC parents.

By Seth Klein and Adrienne Montani,

On Feb. 11, British Columbians will enjoy a well deserved new stat holiday. With the inaugural Family Day, Premier Christy Clark has made good on a promise made during her bid for the BC Liberal leadership. The winter stretch needed a new long weekend, and many will appreciate this newfound time with family and friends.

But what of other promises made as part of the premier’s “Families First” agenda? And what other policy initiatives are needed to truly make life a little easier for B.C. families? The government claims its families first agenda is “focused on keeping family life affordable” and “supporting vulnerable families,” but does it really live up to its claims?

Minimum wage momentum?

Clark did make good on one promise early in her mandate, when she eliminated the $6 “training” wage and increased the minimum wage to $10.25 an hour. Until recently, about 13 percent of British Columbians, many of them parents, earned less than $10 an hour, so the minimum wage hike provided a solid benefit to thousands of low-wage workers (although a new lower wage for those who serve alcohol will leave some behind, as in plenty of drinking establishments tips will not make up the difference).

But the minimum wage increase was fully adopted in May 2012. Now what? Is it to remain frozen for years once again, as it was between 2001 and 2011? Someone working full-time full-year at the new $10.25 rate will earn an income of only about $18,655, still below the poverty line for a single person ($23,300 as of 2011), and well below the poverty line if they have a child (in which case it was $29,000 in 2011).

What’s needed is a clear rationale for setting the minimum wage. The minimum wage should be linked to the poverty line, and then indexed to inflation, so that employers can plan for predictable increases, our lowest paid workers won’t lose buying power, and we can stop having this debate every few years.

Another early plank in the premier’s proposed Families First agenda was a promise to increase the Working Income Tax Benefit. But we’ve heard nothing on that front for the past two years; the idea seems to have evaporated.

Add to the list

What else should rightly constitute core elements of a “families first” agenda? We offered up a list of recommendations two years ago, and continue to urge the following:

• First and foremost, recognize the toxic role poverty plays in undermining healthy childhood development, and adopt a comprehensive poverty reduction plan with legislated targets and timelines, as outlined by the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition. Thus far, the B.C. government refuses to commit to such a plan (one of only two provinces to stubbornly hold out). Instead, the government has announced community “Poverty Reduction Strategies” in seven pilot communities. But with no new resources or programs or targets, these initiatives are unlikely to lower poverty rates locally, let alone provincially. It is the province itself that has the capacity to meaningfully reduce poverty. According to a recent poll commissioned by the BC Healthy Living Alliance, 78 per cent of British Columbians think it is important for political leaders in B.C. to address poverty with a provincial poverty reduction plan with clear targets and timelines. Clearly, the public is ready for political leadership on this issue.

• Create a provincial non-profit child care system that offers high quality, affordable and accessible care for all families. This is a vital employment support for parents, and necessary to enhance child development opportunities for all children. Currently, parents pay punishingly high and escalating fees, there are too few spaces, and early childhood educators are underpaid. There is a growing chorus calling for a $10/day plan, and much work has gone into how such a plan should be structured. This policy would be a game-changer for thousands of young families; it is likely the single most significant thing the government could do to relieve families of a key affordability challenge.

• Reform B.C.’s income assistance policies. The welfare rates of $610 for a single person and $906 for a person with a disability are far too low and have not been raised since 2007. It is time to increase inadequate shelter and support rates, index them to inflation, and restore child support exemptions. Revise the rates for parents/grandparents raising children with disabilities to better reflect their extra needs. Thankfully, the government did recently restore earnings exemptions for everyone on social assistance, and improved the rules for adults with a recognized disability. But families and individuals on income assistance remain far below the poverty line.

• Increase government’s efforts to end homelessness, and increase the availability of safe and affordable housing for low-income families. As a province, we used to bring on-stream 2,000 new units of social housing a year (and in truth, much more is needed today). But the province has only increased the net new supply of social housing by about 2,700 units total over the past seven years (or less than 400 units per year). And at present, there are no new plans to build social housing once the current promised units are completed. If that does not change, the homelessness crisis will be back at peak levels in a few short years….