The high price of poverty

By Tim Miller, The Intelligencer

For many Canadians all it takes is one event, one moment, to go from getting by to living on the street or not knowing where their next meal is coming from.

For one 63-year-old Belleville resident, who asked only to be identified as Ron, that moment came when an injury to his foot sidelined him for eight months. Doctors were able to save the foot, but, by the time he was mobile again, crippling arthritis had taken root.

“I couldn’t climb ladders or lift anything,” said Ron as he sat in a small office off to the side of a lunch room at the Salvation Army.

For Ron, this meant being forced into early retirement at the age of 60 from a job at a local grocery store where he had worked for the better part of a decade. Prior to that he had spent a lifetime in the workforce selling wholesale goods throughout southeast Ontario.

Pooling the handful of small pensions from years of working, he was able to scrape by for a time with the help of meal programs like the ones put on by the Salvation Army.

It was last fall when he finally ran out of road.

“I found myself, after all those years of working, living on the street,” he said.

Four days later, and with the help of the Salvation Army and Hastings County, Ron was able to find himself with a roof over his head once again — though he said he still depends on charitable meal programs to make ends meet.

Some are less fortunate.

Jason, who also asked his last name not be published, moved to Calgary from Belleville as a young child. He spent most of his adult life working construction jobs and even did a three-year stint in the Canadian army in the King’s Own Calgary Regiment.

“I thought it was the path for me, but no,” he said ruefully about his time in the KOCR.

Jason moved back to Belleville in 2014.

“It’s home,” he explained. “I just needed to be back home.”

After staying on a cousin’s couch for a month — followed by a week of sleeping in his car — Jason was able to secure an apartment.

It took a little less than a year for the struggle to pay rent and bills with the meagre amount received through Ontario Works to finally overtake him.

With only a handful of personal possessions and an orange tabby cat named Garfield, Jason had joined the city’s homeless.

For months he slept any place he could — on someone’s couch for a week here and there when he could, and in a makeshift camp by the Moira River when he couldn’t.

Jason said his days were filled with uncertainty and fear.

“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to sleep where I was at, if I was going to be tossed off the 7th floor balcony in the middle of the night, or if somebody was going to come into my campsite in the middle of the night and roust me out, or if I was going to end up in jail, or if I was going to lose my cat.”

There’s a feeling of hopelessness that sets in when you’re homeless, he explained, a feeling that climbing out of that hole is never going to be possible.

“Nobody wants to know you, you can’t go get a job, you can’t get an apartment, you don’t always look as though you’re in the best of health or condition. People in general just don’t want anything to do with you.

“They can see homelessness on you. They can see broken. That’s all they see, a broken individual.”

With help from Hastings County, Jason, now 43, has moved into subsidized housing into what he calls his “first stable house” in his adult life.

But even now he finds himself leaning on charitable groups as, after rent and bills are paid, he’s left with just a little more than $100 a month for food and clothing and laundry.

“I still can’t feed myself. I’m still not independent in any way.”

These are stories Abby Mills, Salvation Army community and family services director, has heard all too often, and has been hearing in ever-increasing numbers over the past several years.

From 2011 to 2016 the number of people attending the organization’s lunchroom program has increased by nearly 43 per cent.

“A busy day, even three and a half years ago, would’ve been just over a hundred people coming to have lunch,” said Mills. “Now we look at each other and call it a slow day because we’ve gotten accustomed to so many more coming.”

Hastings and Prince Edward counties have the highest prevalence of food insecurity in the province at 11.5 per cent according to the Canadian Community Health Survey. The provincial average is 8.3 per cent.

  •  The cause

Current rates for Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program are less than half of the international measure for poverty, pointed out Dr. Elaine Power, an associate professor in the school of kinesiology and health studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, adding those rates mean people simply can’t afford food.

Power levels much of the blame at the provincial government.

In 1995 the Conservative government cut social assistance rates by almost 22 per cent. Those rates stayed frozen until the Liberal party took over, but even then recipients fared only a little better as rates raised one per cent per year for every year until, this last year, when it raised two per cent.

“The rates now, if you adjust for inflation over 22 years, they’re completely inadequate,” said Power. “A single person on Ontario Works is going to try and live on just over $700 a month. I defy anyone to manage that.”

  • Wealth and health

The effects of poverty stretches well beyond the social aspect, negatively impacting education, the justice system and health care.

The Canadian Medical Association has estimated that 20 per cent of health care costs are directly related to poverty, said Power.

“If we eliminated poverty, if we brought everyone’s income up to the poverty line, however you wanted to set it, and people were able to eat more healthy and had less stress in their lives because they weren’t worrying about where the next meal was going to come from, we could see tremendous savings in the health care system.”

It’s a statement Dr. Danielle Martin — a Toronto-based family doctor and author of the book Better Now: Six Big Ideas To Improve Health Care For All Canadians — agrees with.

“The most important thing that determines the health of a population is income,” she explained in a phone interview with The Intelligencer. “It’s the most important what we call ‘determinant of heath’, more than anything we do in the health care system.”

Martin has been a long-time champion of public health care — even appearing before a U.S. Senate committee in 2014 to speak on Canada’s health care system.

Martin said the after-effects of poverty on health echo for generations.

“Children who are born into poor households… have higher rates of a whole number of chronic health conditions from asthma to mental illness and, as they grow older, they have lower life expectancies.”

She said that’s not only true for children who are born into poverty, but their children as well.

“In other words, being born into poverty has an inter-generational effect on health and on life expectancy.

“So if we think about the long-term cost to our health care system of higher rates of chronic disease, mental illness, physical illness, shorter life expectancies and people who are also more likely to be interacting to a whole lot of different social and health services in their lifetimes, it would be much less expensive to society just to eliminate poverty then to deal with all of these downstream effects.”

  • A possible cure?

When it comes to a solution, both Power and Martin have high hopes for a proposed provincial pilot designed to give people living in poverty a no-strings-attached basic income.

The last time a pilot program like this ran in Canada was in Manitoba in the 1970s.

Dubbed ‘Mincome’ the program ran for four years before being shut down with a change in government.

“Just in four years the rate of admission to hospital dropped by eight and a half per cent,” said Power. “That’s pretty significant in a short amount of time.”

Another finding of that pilot was a reduction in the use of mental health services.

“Because living in poverty is really stressful,” said Martin, pointing out many of the pilot projects around a guaranteed annual income have also shown a decrease in the rate of smoking and alcohol use.

“Which I think is counter-intuitive for many people,” she added. “People will often stereotype their community members who live in poverty, thinking ‘Well, if we give this person additional resources or additional money they’re going to spend it on alcohol or cigarettes.’

“In fact, the opposite is true, if you give people an income supplement they smoke less and they drink less. Presumably the reason for that is because, as stress is reduced in their lives, they feel less of a need to turn to harmful substances to cope with their day-to-day stressful existence.”

Power said not only does a guaranteed income have the potential to reduce health care costs, it could also have an economic upside.

“Poor people aren’t going to be stashing their money in the Cayman Islands, they’re not going to be taking vacations in Europe, they’re going to be spending their money in their communities.

“They’re going to buy food and they’re going to buy clothes and they’re going to buy things that they need.”

Power cited the U.S. Recession in 2008 when states were making concerted effort to sign people up for food stamps because research was showing every $1 in food stamps generated $1.87 in economic return for communities.

“That’s consistent with other research that suggests that every dollar we invest in reducing poverty will save us in the neighbourhood about two.

“It’s an investment in people but it’s also an economic investment.”