Dear Premier Christy Clark: How you can really put families first

Adrienne Montani & Seth Klein, Georgia Straight

Adrienne Montani of First Call: B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition, and Seth Klein of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives have put out the following open letter:

Dear Premier Clark,

Congratulations on your new job. It’s wonderful that your new government will be “putting families first.” And we were heartened to hear you say on the night of your election victory that fighting poverty will be among your top priorities.

Kudos for moving quickly on two important promises –– eliminating the $6 training wage and raising the minimum wage –– and we await news on your commitment to increase the Working Income Tax Benefit.

Increasing the minimum wage to $10.25 by May of next year sends an important signal (and it is a tribute to all those who have campaigned so long on this issue). About 13 per cent of all employed workers in the province, many of them parents, earn less than $10 per hour, so the announced increase will benefit them all. Ultimately, what is needed is a clear rationale for setting the minimum wage. We recommend that you link it to the poverty line, and then index it to inflation, so that employers can plan for predictable increases, and we can cease having this debate every few years.

But what more does “putting families first” require? We offer the following recommendations for a bold child and family agenda:

• Recognize the toxic role poverty plays in undermining healthy childhood development, and adopt a comprehensive poverty reduction plan with legislated targets and timelines, and annual public reporting on progress.

• 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, and necessary to enhance child development.  Currently, parents pay punishingly high fees, there are too few spaces, and early childhood educators are under-paid.

• Encourage employers in both the public and private sectors to pay the living family wages, that is, wages that provide a basic level of economic security (calculated annually by our organizations).  No parent should be required to work so many hours that he or she is deprived of time for parenting, but that is what happens when wages are so low that parents must work multiple jobs just to make ends meet.

• Many important government subsidies and benefits have income thresholds that are much too low, and are clawed-back so quickly that modest income families face some of the highest marginal tax rates in the province. For example, many modest-income families (despite struggling with a bare-bones budget), do not qualify for the low-income carbon tax credit, the sales tax credit, the Rental Assistance Program, MSP premium assistance, or provincial child care subsidies. This can be rectified with smart fiscal policy. Rather then wasting precious public resources on expensive tax cuts (that benefit the rich as well as the poor), focus your efforts on those families struggling to make ends meet. You have begun to recognize this reality when you rightly stated, “government needs to start thinking more holistically about all of these costs.”

• Reform BC’s income assistance policies to better support parents and their children’s healthy development. It is time to raise inadequate shelter and support rates, index them to inflation, and restore earnings and child support exemptions. Revise the rates for parents/grandparents with children with disabilities to better reflect their extra needs.

• Increase government’s efforts to end homelessness, and increase the availability of safe and affordable housing for low-income families. As a province, we need to return to the historic practice of bringing on-stream 2,000 new units of social housing a year. If we do so, we can end homelessness in our wealthy province.

• Work with the federal government to achieve enhanced parental leave through the Employment Insurance system.

• Ensure BC’s public schools have sufficient funding to deliver on their promise of equitable opportunity for all children, regardless of ability or income level. Necessary supports for children with special needs should not be so scarce.

• Ensure the Ministry of Children and Family Development has sufficient funding to carry out its child protection mandate with integrity, based on high standards of practice.  Improve supports for youth in care as they transition to adulthood.

• After BC’s work-start age was lowered to 12 years old, work-related injury claims for 12 to 14-year-old children increased ten-fold. Raise the work-start age in BC back up to 15 and strengthen protections for young people at work.

You have also emphasized the importance of job creation. This too is vital. The latest StatsCan numbers report a BC unemployment rate of 8.8 per cent (distressingly high, and above any province west of the Maritimes). This should tell us that an economic strategy premised on tax cuts doesn’t work. We need to be more creative.

We appreciate your commitment to applying a family impact lens to all cabinet decisions. We wish you good luck and great speed.

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