Rising rent, food costs driving significant increase in Nova Scotia’s living wage

A report published Thursday says the rising costs of shelter and food in Nova Scotia have contributed to a large jump over the last year in what’s considered a living wage in the province.

The annual report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Nova Scotia says the living wage rates for 2023 range from a low of $22.85 per hour for Cape Breton residents to a high of $26.50 in Halifax.

Last year, the rates stood at $20 per hour in Cape Breton and $23.50 in Halifax.

Report author Christine Saulnier said the year-over-year increases in five regions of the province averaged 14 per cent, which are the “most significant” increases since the centre began calculating the living wage in 2015.

“The reason we’re seeing such significant increases is because those cost of living pressures are not being offset by increases in government transfers [tax credits] or changes on the cost side that would see some kind of decrease,” Saulnier said in an interview.

Living wages that reflect costs as of June of this year were listed as: $25.40 per hour for the Annapolis Valley; $25.05 for southern Nova Scotia; and $24.30 for the northern part of the province’s mainland.

According to the centre, the living wage reflects how much a household with two full-time workers must earn to cover all of their necessities and enjoy a decent quality of life.

Christine Saulnier is the Nova Scotia director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. (Robert Short/CBC)

Large factors contributing to this year’s increase were shelter costs, which saw average increases of 18 per cent across the province, and food costs that increased by 11 per cent in every region.

“For the most part, because rent and food are such significant parts of the budget, any major increases there will see a major increase to the living wage,” said Saulnier.

The report cites Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation statistics, which show rents went up in Nova Scotia by 8.3 per cent in 2022 and by seven per cent in the first half of this year. That’s following increases of 4.9 per cent in 2021, 3.9 per cent in 2020 and 3.7 per cent in 2019.

As a result, the report says, more people are being forced to cover housing costs with “discretionary” budget items such as food.

“This level of increase has not been seen in the previous 30 years. Significantly increasing investment in affordable housing with a priority on public and non-market is urgently needed,” the report states.

Minimum wage should be $20: report

As part of battling the rising cost of living, the report also calls for a tax system that more fairly reflects wage earners’ ability to pay. It also calls for adjusted tax credits at the provincial and federal levels to capture more of the taxpaying public.

Otherwise people are working just to pay off their bills, Saulnier said.

“Unless governments address what income level is needed to cover the real costs that people are facing, their income thresholds for those transfers are not helping the people that they should help,” she said. “I’m not talking about one-offs, I’m talking about making some permanent changes here.”

Provincial Finance Minister Allan MacMaster expressed concern over the report’s findings and over the effects of inflation, but he didn’t offer specifics on whether the government would implement any tax changes in order to help people to stretch their earnings.

“Since we were elected as government, we have focused on targeted supports to focus on those in most need and we will continue to do that,” MacMaster said following a cabinet meeting Thursday in Halifax. “We are also trying to invest to fix the health-care system, and that takes a lot of spending.”

With the hourly minimum wage in the province set to hit $15 on Oct. 1, the report also called for the rate to be set at $20.

“It’s a little too late for $15,” said Saulnier. “We’ve been calling for $15 since we started the reports in 2015 where it would have made a difference.”

Labour Minister Jill Balser said the province’s minimum wage review committee will be considering the report’s findings during deliberations this fall and will be bringing a recommendation to her on the wage rate at the end of the year.

Balser was noncommittal when asked whether the minimum wage should be $20.

“I think it’s important that we take a balanced approach to make sure that we have voices heard from all Nova Scotians, and that’s businesses as well as workers,” she said.

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