Fight poverty to improve economic and social health
TheStar.com – Opinion – Fight poverty to improve economic and social health: Canada’s inequality and poverty rates are among the highest in the developed world
December 02, 2008. Roy Romanow
The loud bang of the global economic crisis has drowned out the quieter sounds of many other pressing and related concerns.
As governments search for solutions to shore up our economic health in the short term, they must resist the temptation to put all other issues on the back-burner. The choices are very difficult and painful. I know, I’ve been there. But we need to think long-term, not just short-term.
Let’s consider poverty. It is one fundamental example of how social and economic policy must go hand in hand generally, but especially in these difficult times. Yet, since the global economy started tumbling, three critical reports linking poverty and our overall well-being have been released to scant attention by media and too many governments.
The first, Growing Unequal? by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported that Canada’s growing inequality and entrenched poverty rates are now higher than any other OECD country, except Germany. The OECD noted, in particular, that Canada spends less than most countries on cash transfers such as unemployment and family benefits.
The second report, Toronto Public Heath’s The Unequal City, found a clear link between poverty and poor health. Among its sweeping findings, it reported that the top 20 per cent of male earners live 4.5 years longer than the bottom 20 per cent; females live 2.0 years longer.
The results are consistent with findings in other jurisdictions. In fact, early last week, a landmark report by the Saskatoon Health Region found a yawning health gap between the poor and the rich in that city.
More recently, a team of economists, bankers and food bank directors released a study about the cost of poverty showing that poverty taxes both the health of those in its grasp and the wallets of all of us in society. The study found that Canadians could save $7.6 billion per year in health-care expenditures by elevating the health status of the bottom 20 per cent to that of the next-to-bottom 20 per cent on the income ladder.
Together, these reports point to one inescapable conclusion: If we want to improve the overall health of Canadians and reduce health costs, then one of the most effective and efficient places to start is by reducing poverty. An investment in a deliberate long-term commitment to poverty-reduction is key.
This is by no means an easy feat. The root causes of poverty are many and complex, and so too must be the solutions. And it will take time to deal with something that is so entrenched.
The World Health Organization observed that “poor and unequal living conditions are the consequence of poor social policies and programs, unfair economic arrangements and bad politics. Action on the social determinants of health must involve the whole of government, civil society, local communities and business … Policies and programs must embrace all the key sectors of society, not just the health sector.”
The good news is that a number of Canadian jurisdictions are stepping up to the plate on poverty reduction. Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and New Brunswick are each developing or working on provincial poverty reduction strategies.
In Ontario, Premier Dalton McGuinty has boldly pledged to make poverty reduction a priority and to bring down a comprehensive plan this week. The fact that the premier has remained committed to this timeline even in this toughest of economic times is encouraging. I applaud him for staying the course and pledging to detail a plan of action to give hope to those living in poverty and to provide all of Ontario’s citizens with a more sustainable social and economic future.
Thinking short-term and long-term: It means investing in infrastructure such as housing, jump-starting local economies and investing in people so that everyone can play their part in riding out the storm in which we all find ourselves and moving on more quickly once the storm subsides.
So it is vital that provinces, like Ontario, which have shown leadership avoid the cold-feet syndrome in these times of uncertainty. The rest of Canada needs this display of strategic courage.
It is equally vital that the federal government come to the table, since the provinces by themselves do not control enough levers to tackle poverty on their own.
Both levels of government must resist the temptation to put the fight against poverty on the back-burner while dealing with the effects of the global fiscal crisis – because policy fields do not exist in isolation. At least they shouldn’t.
If Canada is going to revitalize its economy, it requires a more productive workforce. A more productive workforce requires more skilled workers. More skilled workers require higher skilled young people.
This requires effective preschool learning so that all kids enter first grade ready to succeed. And being ready to succeed requires a basic foundation of proper nutrition, good health and safe and affordable housing. Such an environment will only be available to all young people when poverty is addressed.
Now more than ever, we as a society must take off the economic blinkers that will lead us down the road of short-term, isolated fixes. Now more than ever is our opportunity to ensure our economic and social success move in lock-step into the future. It’s encouraging to see some leadership in this regard.
Roy Romanow, a former premier of Saskatchewan and commissioner on the future of health care in Canada, is chair of the Canadian Index of Wellbeing Network Board.