Poverty is a Health Issue: What to look for in the next Poverty Reduction Strategy

September 24, 2013 by 

Living on a low income affects people’s lives in many ways. It can mean having fewer opportunities to fully participate in important day-to-day activities like work and education. But living on a low income can also contribute to having poorer health than those who are better off. Poverty is a health issue, but poverty and poor health are not inevitable.

Ontario is currently working on a new five-year Poverty Reduction Strategy. This provides an excellent opportunity for the province to set out their concrete steps to reduce poverty in the short- and medium-term. A new Wellesley Institute report details how the province can improve the health of all Ontarians by reducing poverty. This is the first in a series of three blogs that set out how to create a Poverty Reduction Strategy that enables good health for all.

Income security

Ensuring that all Ontarians have adequate income is critical to achieving the Poverty Reduction Strategy’s goals. Employment should be a path out of poverty, but we know that many employed Ontarians are unable to afford basic necessities and that this can have negative health impacts.

One area that needs urgent attention is Ontario’s minimum wage. The minimum wage has been frozen at $10.25 since 2010 and there are a growing number of Ontarians who are ‘working poor’. Working poverty can have serious health impacts: Ontario data show that 66 percent of people who were working and made sufficient incomes reported their health as excellent or very good as compared with 49 percent of those who were working poor. Setting the minimum wage at 10 percent above the poverty line and indexing it to inflation will be good for the health of Ontarians.

The Ontario Employment Standards Act sets out the minimum terms and conditions that all employees can expect with regard to wages and other working conditions. These standards are important to all workers, but they are especially so for marginalized workers who are least able to negotiate fair wages and working conditions for themselves. Ensuring that people get paid for the work that they do, and that their pay is in compliance with the law is an effective way to reduce poverty. The Poverty Reduction Strategy should commit to improving enforcement and modernizing the Employment Standards Act.

Increasingly, Ontarians are finding themselves in low-wage work without security or benefits. Precarious forms of employment – like part-time, contract positions that do not offer benefits – are on the rise. Many of these jobs are in the service sector where it is very difficult for employees to choose to unionize and to keep their union once they have decided to join one. Ontario’s Labour Relations Act needs to be updated to reflect the changing structure of the labour market. The Poverty Reduction Strategy should update the Labour Relations Act to protect workers’ collective bargaining rights.

The Poverty Reduction Strategy also needs to address the adequacy of social assistance rates. Social assistance rates are currently set at levels that are too low for recipients to maintain good health. Last year, the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario recommended the creation of a Basic Measure of Adequacy that included the cost of food, clothing and footwear, basic personal and household needs, transportation, and shelter. The Poverty Reduction Strategy should commit to ensuring that social assistance rates are set at a level that allows recipients to afford these basic necessities of life.

These are four areas of action in which policy solutions to improve income security are well-know, actionable and supported by research. The new Poverty Reduction Strategy should take action in these areas to improve the incomes – and health – of all Ontarians.

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