If we’re serious about building a healthy society, we can’t do it without addressing poverty

published on CBC, February 9, 2021

This column is an opinion by Richard Matern, the director of research at Food Banks Canada. His past work includes leading large-scale community-based research projects which helped to inform the income security review process in Ontario. 

COVID-19 has revealed in stark detail how inequalities affect health. If we want to be serious about responding to this pandemic and building a healthy, virus-resistant society during recovery, we can’t do it without addressing poverty and its related social determinants of health. 

In a recent report by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), From Risk to Resilience: An Equity Approach to COVID-19, Dr. Theresa Tam acknowledges the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on some, including seniors, racialized communities, people living with disabilities, and women. This is due to inequities in areas ranging from income and housing, to employment and access to health care. 

There has been ample evidence regarding the challenges faced by people living with low income and their connection to a higher risk for COVID-19 transmission. 

This includes living in inadequate and overcrowded housing, challenges accessing health care, and simply not being able to afford the added costs associated with increased hygiene. It is extremely difficult to afford soap for frequent handwashing, let alone any personal protective equipment (PPE), when most of your income goes to paying rent. 

The PHAC report reinforces that we need to fully address these social determinants of health to fight the pandemic, and in order to do so we need to implement public policies that address the inequities that disproportionately affect marginalized people. 

Food insecurity, for example, is a key symptom of these inequities, something those in food banking have always known. It’s when someone can’t afford enough food, must eat sub-optimal food because they can’t afford better, or has to skip meals because they are unable to buy enough to eat. 

It’s food insecurity that drives people to access a food bank in their community. Even prior to the pandemic, we were already contending with more than one million visits to food banks across Canada per month. At the start of the pandemic in March, before government income supports kicked in, the majority of food banks saw that need increase and in some cases double from the year before. 

However, the implications of food insecurity go beyond being a marker of a poverty-level standard of living. 

Who is more at risk of experiencing food insecurity? They are more likely to live with low income, be female-led lone parent householdsrent rather than own, or be Black or Indigenous

For instance, food banks located in urban centres with populations of 100,000 or more were more likely to report increases in client usage throughout the pandemic, mainly due to COVID-19 related job losses combined with the higher costs of living in cities. Census data shows higher concentrations of visible minority communities live in urban centres, and they are overrepresented in lower-income neighbourhoods. 

Reports by Statistics Canada confirm that racialized communities have been harder hit financially throughout this crisis, and are also more likely to work in low wagehigh-risk jobs

Meanwhile, food insecurity also has profound health impacts not only for households, but for society as a whole. People experiencing it are more likely to face physical and mental health challenges, and require more support from the health care system

For those who can’t afford proper meals, the pandemic has only exacerbated their susceptibility to health problems. 

Addressing food insecurity, as well as inequities in housing, employment and health, require solutions that address the root causes of these interconnected issues. 

The Snapshot of Food Banks in Canada and the COVID-19 Crisis report recommends policies that would help reduce poverty, and in turn address its related issues such as food insecurity and food bank use. Some key recommendations include:

  • Working toward establishing a minimum income floor;
  • New supports for renters living with low income;
  • Affordable early learning and child care for all.

These are similar to the recommendations made in the Public Health Agency report as paths to achieving health equity, addressing the social determinants of health that are foundational for a healthy society. 

For instance, establishing a minimum income floor could include making the temporary employment insurance program a permanent one. That would help to address the health and economic impacts of precarious work arrangements, while also helping to prevent many from falling into deep poverty in the difficult years of recovery ahead. 

A national rent support program for low-income renters, as part of a broader affordable housing strategy, could reduce homelessness and overcrowding in the shelter system while also reducing food insecurity and food bank use. 

Fast-tracking the federal government’s commitment toward a national early learning and child care system would help address the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on women in the labour market, while also enabling parents who were in sectors heavily impacted by COVID-19 to upgrade their education and skills. While these recommendations may seem more aspirational than realistic even in the long term, the temporary measures taken to support people during the initial stages of the COVID-19 crisis show that indeed, the aspirational is possible. 

After an initial surge of need in March, for example, the introduction of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which delivered $2,000 per month quickly and efficiently to eligible households, was seen to have the most impact in flattening the curve of food bank use nationwide, according to the food bank report. When people have enough income they can better afford food, leading to better health and well-being, less pressure on public support systems, and easing a range of serious social issues. 

In the same way an effective income program can be created when there’s political will, we can create a better long-term system that meets the vision set out in Dr. Tam’s report. 

If there was ever any doubt, the pandemic has made it clear that no one in society is truly protected until everyone is protected.