Friday, February 26, 2010

Longer hours, less pay - welcome to a new era

Ever feel like you’re working longer hours than you used to, but still not getting ahead?
Maybe that’s because you are.
The average Canadian now puts in more hours on the job than ever (or at least since 1976, when the federal government started tracking such things). Paid work takes up more than 10 per cent of a typical Canadian’s total year these days, compared to eight or nine per cent in days past.
Worse news still: We’re putting in longer hours but bringing home the same old paycheque. In B.C., the average weekly earnings in 2008 were $780.85. Adjusted for inflation, that’s just $7 more a week compared to a decade earlier.
If you’re the type who likes to ruminate on what trends say about where the world is going, you’ll want to bookmark an intriguing federal Web site, The Indicators of Well-Being in Canada. It tracks statistics in 10 different “areas of well-being” - from work life to family life, from educational status to community connectedness.
I dove into the work category this week and was intrigued by the story the numbers told. It’s certainly not the tale of a new leisure class that the futurists of 20 or 30 years ago were predicting.
The stats get really interesting when you separate the genders.
It’s true that on average, Canadians overall are putting more time than ever into paid work. But most of the Canadian workforce is female now, almost 62 per cent, and that’s skewing the averages when it comes to what’s really going on for working men and women.
So it turns out that only female workers are actually logging longer work weeks. Women now work half an hour more a week on average than they did in 1976, while men work 78 minutes less.
Women continue to earn much, much less than men - $661 a week on average, compared to $903 for men. Take (small) comfort from knowing the wage gap is ever so slightly less now than it was a decade ago, having narrowed by a whopping $19 a week.
Men used to outnumber women in union jobs, but for the last six years it’s been the other way around. Overall unionization rates are falling for both genders, however, with less than a third of Canadian workers now employed in a unionized environment. The Indicators site takes that as worrying news, given that “unions provide workers with a support network to address various work-related issues affecting their well-being.”
On the bright side, men and women alike are experiencing shorter periods of unemployment. Ten years ago, people were typically out of work for six months or more when they lost their job. Now, the average Canadian is back in the saddle within 14.8 weeks - slightly faster if female (13.2 weeks) compared to male (16 weeks). One exception: Workers over the age of 55, who on average will be out of work 23 weeks.
Both genders are experiencing fewer on-the-job injuries.
It’s definitely men who come out the big winners on that front. Their work-related injury rates have fallen dramatically in the last couple of decades, from 44.6 per 1,000 to 23.4. Injury rates for women in that same period fell a more modest six percentage points to 13.6 per 1,000.
Are those improvements because we got a whole lot better at preventing workplace injuries? Could be, but a more likely explanation for falling injury rates is that Canada just doesn’t have as many risky resource-industry jobs anymore.
Unfortunately, that might also explain the lack of growth in average earnings over the years. Yes, more people got injured back in the days when resource industries were booming, but at least they were well-paid.
As for the percentage of Canadians out of work, well, that’s been all over the map for the period of time tracked on the Indicators site.
The worst year on record in the last 35 years was 1983, when the unemployment rate hit 12 per cent. Ten years later, it shot up nearly as high, then settled into a more modest six per cent for most of the years after that. It’s now at 8.3 per cent nationally, and just under that in B.C.
And here’s another sign of changing times: The unemployment rate used to be higher for women than men, but that trend flipped in the 1990s and now it’s men who consistently experience higher rates of unemployment.
Check out the report at Scroll down to “Knowledge Centre” and you’ll find the link there. Happy browsing.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Is this really how the premier wants us to remember him?

By the time you’re premier of B.C., you’re probably wrapped pretty tight in people who tell you what you want to hear.
So I got to thinking a while back about Gordon Campbell, and how he might not even know how small and mean his government is looking these days out here in the larger world. It’s not like he gets much opportunity to check in with the common folk and see what’s up.
But if I were him, I’d be making that happen very soon. Once the Olympics party wraps, I hope he takes some time to touch base with the people whose lives he governs.
Campbell will be B.C.’s premier for at least 12 years, possibly longer if he and his government hang in for another term after the 2013 election. What legacy does he want to leave from his time in office?
I’m sure the Olympics are a major piece, as is the sprucing up of B.C.’s economy (well, up until the economy tanked). Campbell can also take credit for making B.C. a friendlier place to do business, and bringing rapid transit to Vancouver International Airport.
But surely the man wouldn’t want to be remembered for picking on people who were barely hanging on to begin with. Yet that’s what sticks in my mind from his time in government so far, and I’m wondering if he really understands that. And that I’m not the only one.
Campbell’s government has been elected for three terms in a row, so we’ll have to presume that most British Columbians support his way of thinking. But not everything has come up roses under the Liberals, and after 12 years it’s definitely starting to show.
Campbell wants government to function more like business. Good business smarts definitely are important for effective governance, because much of government at the ground level is about attending to the very same things that any business needs to attend to in order to stay in operation.
But there are some big differences between the goals of business and government. Most notably: A business operates for the benefit of its owners and shareholders. A government, at least in a democracy, operates for the good of society. They’re very different things.
Being fiscally astute means a heck of a lot to business. And it needs to mean a lot to a provincial government as well, because the cost of debt goes on and on.
But balancing the books certainly isn’t the only consideration for a government. Businesses don’t need to worry about figuring things out for all the poor, weak, old, young, sick, out-of-work or challenged people in their communities. Governments do.
I’m not against the Olympics. But I can completely understand why people might get incensed at governments sparing no expense to fly piles of snow from one mountain to another via helicopter, while at that very moment the province is announcing $15 million in cuts to services for non-aboriginal B.C. youth and families. I mean, that’s just plain wrong.
Nobody can fault Campbell for believing way back when that trickle-down economics and tough new “hand up, not hand out” programs would take care of British Columbians’ problems. Who’s to say until you try?
But a dozen years in, what’s resulted is an entrenched, growing sub-class of people with bigger problems, poorer health, less education and fewer prospects for well-paid, consistent work and stable housing. They are so close to the edge that the tiniest push sends them head over heels into the abyss. Is that really what Campbell wants?
A small example: If you ran B.C., would you opt to provide $6 a day for Meals on Wheels and a small alarm system to help maintain the independence of a man living with Parkinson’s disease, or deny him that and instead fork out $3,000 or so a month for the long-term care bill he’ll soon be ringing up?
It’s a pretty obvious choice, and I bet Campbell would make the smart one if I could ask him. But his government and the insulated yes-men running B.C.’s health authorities consistently make the wrong one - in that particular case and in many similar situations. Small, stupid cruelties like that happen all the time in the lives of thousands of British Columbians down on their luck.
Mr. Premier, time for a reality check. You don’t strike me as a small-minded, mean man. Don’t let your government be remembered as one.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Poor government policy feeds social problems, municipalities pay the price

Like it or not, it’s our municipal governments who are being left to figure out real solutions to the problems and miseries on our streets.
It’s not right that things have turned out that way. But so it goes sometimes. Kudos to the City of Victoria, the Capital Regional District and the City of Vancouver for recognizing that, even though it must be infuriating to be put in that position.
I take heart from the news this week that the City of Victoria is bidding on three Traveller’s Inn hotels for social-housing use, and funding Our Place street drop-in so it can open two hours longer every day. It’s great that the CRD has stepped in with money to spare the barely-out-of-the-box Coalition to End Homelessness an untimely demise. I like that the City of Vancouver launched new shelters in warehouse space that it owns, instantly housing hundreds of people.
But while I don’t want to be a wet blanket, there’s just one little problem: While our municipalities are stepping up to make things happen, senior levels of government continue to make the same bad decisions that landed us here in the first place. Hard cuts to B.C. community services this year and next threaten to cancel out the small wins we’ve seen around homelessness.
My journalism career has almost exactly tracked the tremendous rise in homelessness in our province, giving me a unique front-row seat to the making of a social catastrophe.
It’s a complex problem, and not everything can be blamed on the actions of senior levels of government. But much of it can.
Homelessness wasn’t even a word when I first started reporting in Kamloops in 1982. When I moved to Victoria in 1989, the dozen or so alcoholics who accounted for Victoria’s street problems at that time seemed so non-threatening that the downtown community whimsically dubbed them “The Apple Tree Gang” and generally spoke fondly of the men.
Pockets of poverty have always existed throughout the province, of course, and there have always been people homeless. (A woman who grew up in the 1930s and ‘40s along Cecelia Ravine recalls seeing men living in empty concrete culverts in that area during those tough years.)
But it was a sporadic problem at best in times gone by, and virtually unheard of outside larger centres. The level of homelessness we’ve now grown used to in B.C. communities would have been unimaginable even a decade ago.
Many, many federal and provincial policies and practises have changed since the early 1980s, when B.C.’s troubles began. The bad decision-making can’t be pinned on one political party, or one party leader; in my time, I’ve seen governments of all stripes participate in the creation of widespread homelessness.
I wish I could tell you I was prescient enough to foresee the terrible thing that resulted from the collective impact of dozens of small policy shifts. But like everybody else, it took me a long time to connect the dots. Homelessness as we know it in B.C. developed drip by drip, one seemingly unrelated policy decision at a time.
The economy has changed enormously over the years as well, in B.C. and around the world. The places where people on the margins once lived and worked have vanished in a blur of gentrification and upward mobility.
The resource work is gone. The welfare and employment insurance is way harder to get. The housing prices are crazy, and rentals are scarce. Even the drugs have changed, bringing a whole new set of issues with them.
Life has also gotten much meaner for anyone with personal problems - a disability, a head injury, a difficult divorce, a troubled child, an infirm or impoverished old age. The “social safety net” in Canada is beyond frayed at this point.
Once again, blame senior levels of government for getting us to this point, and the electorate for not holding them accountable for their devastating actions. At this very moment, even as our communities take on more responsibility around homelessness, the province and the health authorities are making cuts that will fuel further social problems across B.C.
Effective, long-standing services are vanishing under the knife, eliminated with nary a hint of preparation or planning for the social fallout. Only harm can come of that - for those tipping precariously toward the streets, and for anyone dreaming of happier, healthier days for our communities.
Our municipalities are trying to fill gaps as best they can. But as long as higher levels of government are undermining their every step, they won’t succeed.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Visit me at

I'm now doing some writing for a new on-line site, lifeasahuman. Here's my first post.