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Minimum income is what this province needs

New Year’s 2015 will go down in the history books as a moment of triumph for NewBrunswick’s low-income earners — that’s all the workers throughout our province who make minimum wage.

From the 16 year old starting his first job at Tim Hortons to the 50+ father forced back out to our depleted workforce to the single mother who is breathing a sigh of relief after having paid rent once again this month, each one of them will make an extra $10 to $16 a paycheque.

Our really, really good-looking premier Brian Gallant pulled through on a campaign promise and increased minimum wage on Jan. 1 from $10 to $10.30. That means that New Brunswick citizens are worth, at the very least, $10.30 an hour. A political party, body, or bureaucracy decided “maybe they’re worth more, but human life is definitely worth no less than, say, $X an hour. I’m drawing the line there.”

It seems like when that decision was made, no one gave thought to that one’s life might be worth enough to at least eat, feed your family, have a roof over your head, and even, God forbid, some entertainment. Then again, when it was originally instituted, it was likely tied to some consideration of existing median wages. Now, minimum wage is arbitrarily connected to the whims and wishes of government.

What results is a lower class of people. But these people are unskilled. They generally don’t have education. Some have no experience, and others still are just incapable. There are even the workers whose careers are completely irrelevant to our economy. Some of these lower class of citizens don’t have the right geography. Others, the right gender or ethnicity. And, because of these seven sins, they don’t deserve to make enough to live.

The word “deserve” is an amazing word. It’s more consistently vitriolic than bible­belt Baptists. It’s a word that’s manipulated every Friday by a large portion of the workforce who are sitting in cubicles looking at their clock. “It’s 4 p.m. I am going to happy hour. I deserve this.” On more than one occasion I, too, have convinced myself I deserve to go to the Cellar after a week of surfing Reddit.

A hugely influential book was written back in 1989 by Michael Katz called TheUndeserving Poor. In it, he states that “the vocabulary of poverty impoverishes political imagination.” When we diminish our language on poverty and wages to deserving and undeserving, we relinquish a part of our humanity. When we talk about what people deserve in terms of wages, we are directly discussing whether or not people deserve to eat, be dressed and have shelter.

Michael Katz argues in the most elegant way that when we talk about those who live in poverty, the terms deserving and undeserving are so aged and cemented in our vocabulary that we don’t even really know what they mean anymore. When we use either term, we draw on any number of experiences or impressions that justify our belief of who is undeserving or deserving.

This can range from gendered and racial perceptions we might unknowingly carry to our own prejudices against difference. The man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps to make his first million by 25 will likely disgust the 19 year old still hoping to be the next Leonard Cohen.

There is no such thing as deserving and undeserving when it comes to basic essentials. Food, water, shelter, clothing and entertainment. Each one of these is necessary to living. Sure, not everyone deserves a Ferrari. Everyone does deserve food that isn’t shit, clothes that fit, shelter that’s warm and money to do something they enjoy.

Minimum wage disagrees. It says that a person deserves this arbitrary amount of money if (and that’s a big “if” here in N.B.) they can find employment. With that amount, they are free to scrounge together some semblance of life in a country where prosperity constantly surrounds us.

Minimum wage is a political choice. There is no morality or ethical decision-making surrounding minimum wage. A group of mostly middle­income to wealthy men get elected and decided whether or not the worst off in our province deserve heat for the winter.

Don’t get distracted by wage. It’s a huge failure of humanity’s ability for compassion to think that wage is an appropriate meter of what people deserve in life. Deserving starts at having everything you need. Not at zero.

A minimum income is what our province needs. New Brunswick must put more money into the hands of its citizens and less into the hands of its corporations. One will rise and fall. The other will stand amongst the rubble.

Poverty is one of the most pressing issues facing N.B. In that vein: Brian, you handsome devil, do something real for those who don’t deserve it.

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