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Poverty: The Poor Are Sick and Tired, Study Says

More money in people's pockets creates more opportunities

Being poor will make you sick or send you to an early grave at alarmingly higher rates than if you are a middle- or upper-income earner. That was a key finding of a report released Monday at a community forum on health and poverty held at the YMCA in downtown Toronto.

While the report, called Sick and Tired, looked at the health risks faced by welfare and disability recipients and the working poor across Ontario, Toronto's high levels of poverty result in more low-income earners (experiencing) medical problems, Toronto medical officer of health Dr. David McKeown said.

About 25 percent of Toronto residents live below the poverty line, twice the provincial average. A third of Toronto children are living in poverty compared to 19 percent nationally. Looking at different income increments, the report found residents living in rich neighbourhoods are less likely to (experience) health problems than those living in middle-income areas, who in turn are less likely to be sick than residents of poor communities, McKeown said.

The study found the median household income for social assistance recipients is $13,000 a year compared to $21,000 for the working poor and $80,000 for the non-poor. For almost every measurement--from suicide and depression to heart problems and arthritis--welfare recipients and the working poor are more at risk of health problems and death than the non-poor, said Andy Mitchell, one of the report's three-member research team. "When you have a higher income, you know how to get things done for yourself and your family," he said, adding higher-income earners are more adept at navigating medical and bureaucratic systems.

Raising a poor person's annual income by just $1,000 enables them to escape hundreds to thousands of chronic health conditions. "To me, that was very powerful," Mitchell said.

Meanwhile, while new immigrants come to Canada healthier than Canadian-born residents, they become sicker as lack of opportunities forces them into poverty, the study found.

The report's authors admit their findings tying poverty to health risks are nothing new. But as the economy worsens, they are calling on the province to address the issue in its spring budget. "The budget is an opportunity for the province to make a down payment on a poverty reduction strategy," said Michael Shapcott, Director of Community Engagement at the Wellesley Institute, which helped fund the study.

The report also laid out ten recommendations, including urging Queen's Park to establish an independent panel to set social assistance rates that reflect the actual cost of living in Ontario communities, and demanding the federal government introduce a national poverty reduction strategy with concrete targets and timelines.

John Rae, First Vice President of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, and Mike Yale, Co-Chairperson of the ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program) Action Coalition, are hoping politicians don't shelve the report like so many studies in the past. "Too many of the disabled community are marginalized and live in poverty. These reports confirm that fact again and again and again," Rae said. "We're looking for action, not just more studies. It (this study) confirms if you put money in people's pocket, it creates more opportunities to buy better food, to buy health care, to participate in the community, to go to entertainment. These things all benefit people's lives."

Yale, a North York resident, also doesn't want to see the study gather dust. "It won't mean anything unless it becomes part of government strategy," he said. "When a family has to decide between feeding itself or buying a winter coat, it is a serious problem and the government, in my view, hasn't shown it is serious about dealing with the disability pension."

Reprinted from Toronto Community News, February 10, 2009: