Soaring grocery prices are driving up Vancouver’s living wage

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      Metro Vancouver’s living wage increased by 17.3 per cent between 2021 and 2022, driven up by rising rents and soaring food prices, according to a new report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) and Living Wage for Families BC. 

      In the 14th annual report, researchers calculated that a family with two children would need two full-time working parents to earn at least $24.08 per hour to keep up with the cost of living in Metro Vancouver. That’s up $3.56 from $20.52 in 2021.

      “Everyone across BC knows that life has got more expensive,” Anastasia French, provincial manager of Living Wage for Families BC and one of the report’s co-authors, told the Straight. “The surprise was how much the living wage has gone up by.” 

      The 17 per cent increase was considerably higher than inflation, which the BC government recorded at 7.9 per cent in October 2022. It marked the largest single-year jump in living wage calculations, which is now just shy of $44,000 per year.

      “About a third of workers aren’t earning the new living wage,” French says. “They’re workers who are predominantly racialized workers, new immigrants, women, all of the people who experience discrimination … It’s just shown again through these living wage calculations.” 

      BC’s minimum wage currently stands at $15.65 per hour, and legislation passed earlier this year means it will increase annually in line with inflation. But not only is the starting line nearly $10 below the living wage, the cost of living is rising more than inflation. Even Fraser Valley, the least expensive community that CCPA studied, has a living wage of $18.98—21 per cent higher than minimum wage.

      Rent remains the single biggest expense at $2,186 per month, a substantial increase over previous years. While it’s almost impossible to find a two- or three-bedroom apartment in Metro Vancouver for that price, the report notes that the figure “aggregates rent paid by long-term tenants who have benefitted from BC’s rent control measures and those who have recently moved and typically pay higher rents.” 

      The big increase in the living wage, however, was caused by increases in food costs. Groceries are now calculated at $1,114 per month for a nutritious diet for four people, not including dietary requirements or dining out. 

      French says COVID-19 and climate change contributed to food price increases, but corporate greed could also play a role. 

      “Supermarkets are making record profits off the back of people really just trying to pay for the essentials in life,” she says. “Lots of those people who work in those supermarkets are not earning a living wage themselves … to be able to survive and pay rent and pay for the food at the places they’re working.” 

      Canada’s three largest grocery store chains, Loblaws, Metro, and Empire Co., have all posted earnings tens of millions higher than the same quarter in 2019. A recent report from Dalhousie University suggested the Competition Bureau of Canada should investigate whether grocery corporations are taking advantage of inflation to boost shareholder profits.

      French says food price increases are a new phenomenon, so there aren’t yet detailed policy recommendations for how they could be remedied. But housing has a number of provincial or policy solutions that advocates have been pushing for years. 

      Rent control, for instance—tying annual rent increases to individual units rather than tenants—could help with out-of-control housing affordability.

      “There’s rent control in place to help tenants who are in their places, but as soon as they have to move or they’re evicted … the rent goes up by 10, 20 per cent,” French says. “A lot of the affordable housing stuff is so necessary, but it takes time.” Rent control, in contrast, “will really make a quicker difference.”

      New premier David Eby has announced two credits to help BC residents with the cost-of-living crisis. All BC Hydro customers will receive a one-time $100 credit, while a sliding scale BC Affordability Credit will give families earning up to $150,051 a tax credit. 

      The maximum amount will be $410 to a family with two children with a household income of $43,051 or less. The living household income, calculated at around $87,652 annually, is almost double the cap eligible for maximum benefit. 

      “The living wage actually went down in 2019, because of government policy. If they did the same kind of thing with housing, that can really make a substantial difference in people’s lives,” French says. 

      Eby also announced new measures designed to create more housing: amending the Strata Property Act to end age-restriction bylaws for non-senior housing and eliminate rental-restriction bylaws, and tabling the Housing Supply Act to give the province “the power to set housing targets in municipalities with the greatest need.”

      The press release did not address non-market housing or rent control, meaning new units that may be built under the Housing Supply Act may not be affordable for workers earning a living wage.

      In a written statement, the City of Vancouver told the Straight that it had taken “an active role in food policy,” citing the 2013 Vancouver Food Strategy and 2022 Vancouver Plan chapter on food systems. 

      “The City recognizes that increases to the cost of living affect residents’ ability to afford food,” the statement reads. “About 10 percent of Vancouver households experience inadequate food access due to financial constraints, and this rate is higher among equity-deserving groups including residents identifying as Indigenous or LGBTQ2+, renters, and lone-parent households.”

      The city also pointed towards its 2017 Housing Vancouver Strategy, which has approved 68 per cent of its 10-year target of 16,000 market rental homes, but only 29 per cent of its target of 4,000 developer-owned below-market rental homes.