Higher welfare payments urged

TheStar.com – Ontario – Higher welfare payments urged: Report considers ways province can help solve chronic health problems affecting poor Ontarians
February 09, 2009. Laurie Monsebraaten, SOCIAL JUSTICE REPORTER

Queen’s Park should boost welfare payments and improve access to disability assistance for Ontarians who can’t work for health reasons as a remedy for chronic health problems among the poor, according to a report produced by the Community Social Planning Council, with the University of Toronto and the Wellesley Institute.

People on welfare are 10 times more likely to have attempted suicide than those living on middle- or upper-incomes, notes the report, which is to be released today.

Even taking into account other factors such as smoking, disabilities and a lack of education or physical activity, a low household income continued to be strongly associated with ill health, says the report, which draws on provincial data in Statistics Canada’s 2005 community health survey.

Median household income for those on welfare in the study was $13,000. Median for the working poor was $21,000.

The latter were healthier than those on welfare, but less so than Ontarians in higher income levels, according to the report.

The exceptions were recent immigrants in the working poor category, whose health was better by some measures than middle- and upper-income people born in this country.

The so-called “healthy immigrant effect,” which has been documented in past studies, can be attributed to Canada’s preferential immigration policies.

Because these newcomers are healthy when they arrive and bring proper eating habits with them, they appear to be insulated at first from the ill effects of poverty, says the report, which goes on to say that the longer they are in Canada and saddled with low incomes, the sicker they become.

“Governments see investments in social services as just costs,” said chief author Beth Wilson.

“But when you factor in the costs to health care (for those) in great depths of poverty, we see a real economic imperative to respond.”

Research released last fall pegged the annual health costs of poverty at $2.9 billion, she noted.

Neil Howard, 45, an artist, poet and playwright, has suffered from schizophrenia since he was 20, impairing his ability to take on full-time employment.

He has lived on Ontario’s welfare program for the disabled since 1989 and knows how tough it can be to make ends meet.

While never suicidal himself, Howard says he knows at least two low-income people who took their own lives.

Trying to deal with health problems on a welfare cheque “just adds to my stress,” he said, noting that $1,250 a month doesn’t stretch very far.

Although his medicine is paid for, the side effects make him feel hungry all the time, which has resulted in a weight gain of about 200 pounds and a new struggle with diabetes. He relies on a 1992 Honda Accord to get around, and to combat the isolation of his disability, has a dog named Lucky.

“Lucky is a great companion and keeps me healthy because I’m forced to get out every day and walk him,” Howard says. “But there’s the cost of dog food and vet bills.”

Toronto medical health officer David McKeown, who today is to address a forum organized to discuss the report, said he thinks Ontario’s review of social assistance and its pledge to cut child poverty by 25 per cent in five years are promising signs.

But people without children are some of the province’s poorest citizens and they need help, too.

“I’ve said it many times before: Reducing poverty is the best medicine money can buy,” he said. “I think this report reinforces that message.”

Ontarians on social assistance suffered higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, chronic bronchitis, arthritis and rheumatism, mood disorders, anxiety disorders and many other conditions, the report found.

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