Minimum wage and the Food Bank – by the numbers

Notley recently defended the NDP minimum wage hike by saying it would not hurt the economy. Western Feedlots would beg to differ, but that’s another story.

What I’m interested in was a small anecdote from the end of Notley’s comments. Her concern is hard-working Albertans who “had to stop at the food bank on the way home because they could not possibly feed their families based on a full-time salary that we pay here in Alberta.”

Let’s look at some numbers.

According to the Calgary Food Bank “fast facts” web page, 1 in 9 Calgarians have utilized the services of the Calgary Food Bank. I’ll admit, that number really surprised me at first. If that was all I knew I would say Calgary has a big problem. But, as is often the case, there is more to the story.

On that same page we learn that 37% of those only ever visited the Food Bank once. Well that’s a fairly relevant detail. So it’s not like 1 in 9 Calgarians are cycling through the Food Bank on a daily, or even weekly, basis. A large percent of those who walk through their doors will never return. They are likely seeking those services because of some unexpected disruption in their lives after which things return to something approaching “normal.”

It gets even more interesting. Right under the 37% statistic is another little fact; 74% of those 1 in 9 Calgarians visited 3 times or less. In other words, the overwhelming majority of those who visit the Food Bank visit on an incredibly infrequent basis. They are likely there because of some temporary disruption in their lives.

[On a related note, when Denise was in the hospital I imagine we might have had to utilize the services of the Food Bank if we didn’t have so much amazing family and church support. Even with an engineer’s salary sometimes life throws stuff at you that would just sink you if you didn’t have a strong community support network like we do.]

So if 74% of the 1 in 9 Calgarians (that’s 11.1%) are “anomalous” visitors, how many might be considered “regular” (meaning at least 4 repeat visits)? That would be the other 26%.

26% of 11.1% = 2.8%

Less than 3% of Calgarians are “regulars” at the Food Bank.

It gets more interesting. Notley described the heart-wrenching scenario of a hard working Albertan who had to stop at the Food Bank on the way home in order to feed their family. Well, the Food Bank has some data on that too. Toward the bottom of that same web page we learn that 39% of those who visit are individuals and 61% of them are families. Now I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with individuals, but I am curious just how prevalent Notley’s particular scenario is, so let’s do the math on that.

26% (regular visitors)

x 61% (are families)

x 11.1% (of Calgarians)

= 1.76%

The scenario Notley articulated describes less than 2% of the population of Calgary. Now I’m definitely not one to dismiss the marginalized of society, but if the problem she describes only applies to 2% of people, why should the solution – minimum wage increase – apply to 100% of people? Wouldn’t it be more effective to seek a solution that targets the 2% who are in the situation Notley is so passionate about? Job training and/or work experience quickly moves a person up the wage ladder, so perhaps something along those lines might be more of a minimalist government intervention that actually addresses the underlying issue for the 2% of people Notley is so concerned about, instead of burdening the entire economy?

Or, another way to think of this; if the minimum wage increase is likely to result in job loss (like we see at Western Feedlot) then if the increase in unemployment is roughly comparable in magnitude to the number of people Notley is trying to “save” – on the order of less than 2% – then the net effect is a wash. What good is it if 1.76% of Calgarians are lifted out of the need for the Food Bank if a different 1.76% of Calgarians are now put in that situation because they are out of work thanks to the minimum wage hike?

Just a thought.

There is another factor at play here that deserves consideration. According to the Food Bank data 21% of those they help are in single-parent households. This statistic is interesting because Statistics Canada tells us that 14.5% of Albertans live in lone-parent families (table 9, about half way down).

If I told you that 21% of people with lung cancer are smokers, but only 14.5% of the general population are smokers, would that lead you to wonder if smoking might be associated with lung cancer?

Or if I told you that 21% of people with high income levels are fluent in more than one language, but only 14.5% of the general population are fluent in more than one language, would you start looking for night classes in Espanol?

As I strove to show in For the Love of Alberta, the breakdown of family is a significant contributor to social ills such as these. And when the proportion of single family households that end up at the Food Bank is higher than the proportion of single family households in society at large, that reminds us of the fact that non-traditional family scenarios simply are not as good for society – including the adults and children in those families – as traditional married families are.

As I mentioned previously, in an aside, our family and church community are particularly strong. When we faced a crisis in our lives we had no need for the Food Bank or government support of any kind because our biological, legal and church families all provided the support we needed. Strong families can weather the storms of life a whole lot better than broken families.

So perhaps another means by which the government can contribute to poverty reduction is by strengthening the family. Wouldn’t it be great if more kids grew up with both of their biological parents in a stable married household, never setting foot in the Food Bank?

Just a thought.