Published by Senator Art Eggleton on 07 June 2010
Poverty in Canada presents more then the obvious symptoms. Not only does it trap people in an endless cycle that is nearly impossible to break, it also has a significant impact on their health. To put it simply poverty is making people sick, very sick. In fact, According to Statistics Canada, poverty reduces the life expectancy of Canadians more than cancer! If we as Canadians ever want to have a real discussion about health in this country a discussion about poverty must be included.
The Senate Committee on Social Affairs, which I chair, has long been aware of the connection between health and poverty. We have been examining the issue in one form or another for close to a decade. Our Committee has tabled major reports on Mental Health, and the Canadian Health Care System as a whole, and in each of these reports the fundamental connection between health and poverty was quite evident.
This was especially apparent in a report we published examining Population Health, which discovered that only 25 percent of the factors that influence our health are related to the health care delivery system itself. The remaining 75 percent can be attributed to determinants of health, things like income, occupation, education level, housing and early childhood development. One needs to look no further then Saskatoon where low-income residents were over 3,000% more likely to have hepatitis C and over 1,000% more likely to be hospitalized for diabetes then those in the middle to high income brackets.
The Social Affairs Committee most recent report, “In From the Margins: A Call to Action on Poverty, Housing and Homelessness” not only re-established this conclusion but also made a number of new and startling observations. Witnesses from Statistics Canada informed the committee that men and women living in a shelter would have an average life-expectancy of six years less then those living in the lowest income quintile. This number jumps to 13 years when comparing those in shelters to the highest income quintile.
With the social determinants of health playing such a clear role in the correlation between health and poverty, “In from the Margins” recommended that the federal government instruct its central agencies to allocate resources in order to prevent and address negative health outcomes associated with poverty. By addressing these issues early on in life a multitude of issues could be avoided.
Look at it this way, a child born into poverty has a greater chance of dying in infancy and, if he or she lives, is likely to have a lower birth weight and more disabilities. As they grow, they will suffer from poor nutrition and poor health. They’ll miss more days of school and slowly, but surely, fall further and further behind.
Not surprisingly, they are less likely to do well, and are more likely to drop out. With a poorer education, they will earn less, pay less in taxes, be less productive workers, have more health problems and use more social services, all at a significant cost to society.
A recent Ontario study, guided by economists and policy experts such as Don Drummond, Judith Maxwell and James Milway, estimated that the cost of poverty in Canada is between a staggering $24 billion and $30 billion dollars annually. Healthcare is hit particularly hard with an estimated $7.6 billion being added to healthcare budgets across Canada, creating an added strain on a sector that has already been stretched thin. Federal and Provincial governments across Canada loose between $8.6 billion and $13 billion in income tax revenue to poverty each year and if child poverty was to be eliminated the extra income tax revenue nationally would be between $3.1 billion and $3.8 billion.
We can’t afford to allow citizens to suffer from poor health brought on by their surroundings and we certainly can’t afford the fiscal costs poverty generates. It’s pretty simple, we can’t afford poverty anymore.
Poverty has many consequences in terms of lives diminished, dreams deferred and potential denied. At least 3.4 million Canadians are living in poverty, that is a tenth of our population suffering from those very consequences. Their lives should not be exacerbated by sickness and disease. The health of our fellow citizens is an issue that should engage us all. And if we are going to reduce the cost of health care, it is an issue that must engage us all. At a time when millions are running for the cure, perhaps it’s fair to ask, “Who’ll run for the poor?”