Canada's Original Think Tank

Health and Poverty—Inquiry

Health and Poverty—Inquiry

Health and Poverty—Inquiry

Health and Poverty—Inquiry


Published on 14 May 2014
Hansard and Statements by Senator Catherine Callbeck (retired)

Hon. Catherine S. Callbeck:

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to an issue that, despite affecting millions of Canadians, continues to be ignored by all levels of government and, far too often, the general public as well. We are all guilty of walking by someone sitting on the street, palm outstretched for any change we might be able to spare. Yet for many us, the natural reaction is to look away. Honourable senators, to look away and ignore the person is also to ignore the problem. And the problem, poverty, has an impact on this country that goes far beyond what most can comprehend.

It’s estimated that 9 per cent, or over 3 million Canadians, are living in poverty every day. In 2012, a record 882,000 Canadians used food banks each month, the highest level of food bank usage ever; in 2011 the number was only slightly lower at 851,014, which is still 26 per cent above the 2008 levels. About 3.1 million households pay more than 30 per cent of their income on housing, making them housing insecure, and 150,000 to 300,000 are visibly homeless, while 450,000 to 900,000 Canadians represent the hidden homeless. Not surprisingly, those numbers are having a dramatic impact on the Canadian economy.

According to Canada Without Poverty, every year poverty costs the Canadian economy between $72 billion and $84 billion. That’s an astronomical amount of money. To put that into context, that’s the equivalent of what the government will spend, according to this year’s Main Estimates, on Employment and Social Development, Defence, Health, and Indian Affairs combined. More specifically, the Ontario Association of Food Banks estimates that poverty costs our health care system $7.6 billion a year; and that is where I want to place my emphasis today: poverty and health. The two, without a doubt, are connected. By fixing one major problem, we can alleviate the pressure it places on the other.

This chamber is no stranger to the crippling effects that poverty has on our economy and the health of Canadian citizens. The Senate has spent a great deal of time and effort examining the issue and has produced some important literature on the topic. The report of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, In From the Margins: A Call to Action on Poverty, Housing and Homelessness, was heralded by poverty groups across the country. It brought forth sweeping recommendations on how we should handle the issue of poverty, housing and homelessness. I’d like to take some time to remind honourable senators about what that report found when it came to poverty and the impact it has on population health. The report found:

The biggest health problem in Canada is inequality. The overall improvement in our health status masks the grim reality that health inequalities among social classes are growing — as they are in most highly developed countries. In Canada:

  • Healthy life expectancy is three to four years less in low- income neighbourhoods than in high-income neighbourhoods.
  • The infant mortality rate in low-income neighbourhoods is almost double that in high-income neighbourhoods.
  • The average birth weight for babies born in low-income neighbourhoods is one-quarter pound less than for those born in high-income neighbourhoods.

Moreover, according to Dr. Cory Neudorf, Chief Medical Health Officer for Saskatoon, who testified before the committee:

While no one was surprised to learn that health was related to poverty, people were surprised by the extent and persuasiveness of the issue across so many of the conditions. Compared to high-income neighbourhoods, the low-income residents were 1,458% more likely to attempt suicide; over 3,000% were likely to have hepatitis C; and 1,186% were likely to be hospitalized for diabetes.

There are countless studies that back up the findings of In From the Margins. The World Health Organization states that poverty creates ill health because it forces people to live in environments that make them sick, without decent shelter, clean water or adequate sanitation.

Barbara Wolfe, Professor of Economics, Public Affairs, and Population Health Sciences at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, wrote in her paper on poverty and health that:

There is also empirical evidence of a link between poor health and poverty. . . . For every age group, those with lower incomes tend to report poorer health . . .

The Canadian Medical Association supports the claim made by Ms. Wolfe and many others in their most recent report from July of this year entitled Health Care in Canada: What makes us sick? According to that report:

There is overwhelming evidence of the impact of wealth on health. Many studies show that people low on the socio- economic scale are likely to carry a higher burden of just about any disease. Data from a public survey conducted by the CMA in 2012 confirmed these findings: When asked to rate their health, 70% of Canadians earning more than $60,000 a year described it as excellent or very good. But of those earning $30,000 a year or less, only 40% said they were in good or excellent health.

The CMA goes on to make 12 recommendations in the report, and the first one is that the federal, provincial and territorial governments give top priority to developing an action plan to eliminate poverty in Canada. In fact, CMA President Anna Reid states, “In a nutshell, we heard that the biggest barrier to good health is poverty.” That’s an incredible declaration.

The problem is real, honourable senators, and the solution is obvious. If we want our population to become healthier and as a result save billions of dollars in health care spending, reducing poverty is the best way to do it.

Now at the beginning of my speech, I mentioned that more Canadians than ever are turning to food banks every year to feed themselves, a distressing 882,000 per month as of 2012. Food insecurity is a major problem in Canada; however, I don’t think we realize the true magnitude of the issue. A study released in July by Valerie Tarasuk of the University of Toronto found that 3.9 million Canadians were affected by food insecurity; that 330,000 households were severely food insecure; and that 3.9 million marks an increase of 450,000 people since the last study was done in 2008. Nova Scotia, Yukon, Prince Edward Island and the Northwest Territories range from 15 per cent to 17 per cent, while Quebec, Manitoba, Alberta, Ontario, Saskatchewan and B.C. vary between 11 per cent and 12 per cent. The lowest was Newfoundland at 10.6 per cent.

Newfoundland is an extremely promising case study. Five years ago, their level was 15 per cent. Now they are the lowest in the country. That decrease is no accident; it goes hand in hand with the province’s aggressive anti-poverty strategy that was adopted in 2006. Newfoundland is a perfect example of how a commitment to targeted anti-poverty programs can pay off and show immediate improvements across the province.

The most troubling part about the food insecurity issue here in Canada is that it deeply affects our children. In New Brunswick and my home province of P.E.I., a shocking one in four children were living in a home where their parents had a hard time feeding them. According to Tarasuk, the situation is toxic to human health. She went on to say:

By the time [children are] teenagers and young adults, they’re more likely to be diagnosed with a whole range of health problems.

Without a doubt, food insecurity plays a major role in the poverty cycle, particularly when it comes to the health aspect. I believe that putting resources towards alleviating food insecurity across Canada will go a long way to help with the overarching health issues that come hand in hand with poverty.

Honourable senators, I’d like to conclude with a quote from an op-ed piece Senator Eggleton wrote on this topic in June 2011 forThe Hill Times. Senator Eggleton has done a lot of work on this topic, and I think he sums up the whole issue perfectly. He wrote:

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.