Canadians know that sickness can get expensive. One of Momentum’s participants, Ben, experienced this truth personally when a Schizophrenic episode led to a long hospital stay. Time away from work eventually led to the loss of a meaningful engineering job and a family breakdown. One can only imagine how paralyzed his doctors might have felt as these events advanced; Medicine can only do so much.
Factors that have an influence on health are academically referred to as the social determinants of health. These include things such as income, education, employment and quality of housing, among others. For example, the constant challenge to make ends meet can lead to toxic stress that negatively impacts both physical and mental health. Research in Hamilton, Ontario, among other papers on the topic of poverty being an influence on health, demonstrated a 21-year difference in life expectancy between the city’s highest and lowest income level neighbourhoods.
While the costs of health care are well documented, the additional costs of poverty include a higher use of public services by people living on low incomes, including social assistance and the justice system. Research indicates that annual cost of poverty in Alberta is $7.1B to $9.5B.
With a clear link between poverty and health, and knowledge of astounding economic costs, what can be done?
As citizens, we can strive to focus public resources on supporting the reduction and prevention of poverty. Research by the University of Calgary School of Public Policy demonstrates that government investment in social services over the last 30 years across Canada has remained flat while health spending has more than doubled. The Alberta government’s recent increase of the Income Support and Assisted Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) rates as well as indexing both benefits to inflation is a good example of a positive step to invest in social assistance to reduce poverty. Despite the financial challenges in Alberta, Canadian research demonstrates that this form of social investment can contribute to better health outcomes, which can ultimately save the government money.
Income from stable and decent paying jobs and the development of savings are crucial steps toward creating financial empowerment. But what can a doctor to do when presented with a patient struggling to make ends meet? Physicians may not yet be able to prescribe income, but they can make thoughtful referrals to community organizations well-positioned to help by:
- Encouraging Tax Filing: This is a key step for Canadians to access benefits and grants. Calgary’s Fair Entry program and Low-Income Bus Pass both require up-to-date taxes.
- Referring to Financial Empowerment Programs: Organizations like Momentum can help people take control of their finances and earn up to $1,800 to put toward a savings goal.
Once Ben was out of the hospital and had found supportive housing, he started working part-time and saving every month. Several years later, he is now healthier, more financially stable and recently became a proud homeowner. In fact, he has even saved $60K in his Registered Disability Savings Account—money he can access when he turns 60.
We are all much healthier when we have the means to learn, earn, save and thrive.