Day-to-day life is precarious for many

By Greg Fingas, The Leader-Post October 25, 2014 -

Over the past few years, "precarious work" has become an all-too-familiar description for the job status of many Canadians.

Despite nominal growth in job numbers for those who don't want to take quality into account, the trend for workers is toward perpetually less security. Many people have been forced into a myriad of unsettled work arrangements rather than long-term employment, generally out of necessity rather than choice.

Full-time employment has been stagnant: any job growth has been in self-employment and part-time employment as people settle for less security in order to scrape by. And the use of temporary contracts means that even those with full-time work may have far less job security than was once the norm.

While the shift toward precarious work has received plenty of attention, there's much to be done to actually reverse it.

But in addition to making work less precarious wherever possible, we should also expand our concern about precarity to cover a much wider range of issues. As an example, one need look no further than Austin Davis' Oct. 6 Leader-Post feature on Ron Setchell's search for housing. For Setchell, the loss of a rental unit - combined with a series of barriers largely beyond his control - turned into a monthslong ordeal on the streets.

Most of us are lucky enough not to have to see that level of deprivation as an imminent risk. But we shouldn't pretend we're immune from pressures that differ in degree rather than kind.

In fact, a recent survey found that nearly half of Canadian households are living paycheque to paycheque. So zero margin for error or misfortune is the rule, not the exception - leaving far too many of us with reason to wonder whether we're a single downturn away from disaster.

And all this is happening as we learn how much there is to gain from eliminating precarity in its most obvious forms.

While Regina lags behind, Saskatoon has started to see remarkable benefits from a Housing First program that addresses homelessness by providing a stable place to live for people who would otherwise have nothing of the sort.

The immediate price of providing homes is largely balanced out by decreased costs for public services including hospitals, jails and detox centres. And more importantly, the program offers the prospect of longterm gains as it allows people to build on a solid foundation, rather than struggling to survive from day to day.

While Housing First and similar programs represent a good start, we should expect to see the principle taken several steps further.

There's relatively little disagreement as to what we need as the basics of life: healthy food and clean water, safe housing and sufficient clothing, enough work opportunities, income and time to participate in the life of the community that surrounds us. But while we've made great strides in historical terms, our progress has stalled.

To counter that trend, we should apply the precarity principle in two ways.

First, we should expand on the familiar role of government as a social insurer. That means demanding social support programs designed to maximize everybody's secure access to the basics of life - not to minimize how much we do to support each other.

Second, we should evaluate policy choices in all areas based on whether they actually or potentially contribute to avoidable precarity - with a strong presumption that it's worth avoiding that result.

Needless to say, there's a long way to go on both fronts. But it's well worth making the effort before we face the downside of living precariously.

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