Poverty a mental health risk factor

A recent news story on CBC highlighted a Statistics Canada report which says that BC has the highest child poverty rate in the country.

According to the survey, 23.9% - or nearly a quarter of children in BC live below the government’s poverty line. This is compared to the national average of just under 18%. These numbers are staggering and point to our society’s misplaced priorities when it comes to our future.

In actual numbers, the report estimates there are approximately 201,000 poor children in BC, which is more than the entire population of Kelowna. Hard to imagine.

Low income cut offs, or the poverty line, are established by the government based on a model, which states that if a family is spending more than 54.3% of its before tax income on housing, food and shelter it is living in less than ideal circumstances.

A family of four living in Kelowna would fall below the poverty line if they earned less than $31,945 per year before taxes.

There are a variety of factors that affect a family’s likelihood of reaching or exceeding the poverty line. Visible minorities, recent immigrants, aboriginals, single parents and women are all at increased risk of living in poverty.

Low wages also contribute to higher poverty rates. In 2003 a single person in Vancouver working full time would need an hourly wage of at least $9.60 to reach the poverty line. Since the minimum wage was $8.00 per hour, many full time workers could not earn enough.

Unfortunately, almost a quarter of all jobs in Canada held by people aged 17-64 pay less than $10 per hour.

Persistent poverty is not good for our society. Children who grow up in poverty encounter more hurdles in life and have fewer opportunities for education and development. Statistically, poor children will have more illness, shorter lifespans, more healthcare costs, less productivity, more social problems and a greater need for social assistance than those who do not grow up in poverty. All of these contribute to a higher likelihood of mental health problems.

These increased problems also cost money and reduce the quality of our society.

Although poverty is a huge issue and not easy to deal with, there are some things we could be doing to better the situation in our province and country.

First, wages should be higher. The minimum wage should be reflective of the cost of living or social assistance should be increased to compensate for the gap. When a family cannot afford to eat a healthy diet or live in a market rent situation while on social assistance, that shows we do not value our human resources.

Companies whose CEOs are paid tens of millions of dollars annually while jobs are cut and wages are lowered are only contributing to the problem of poverty. Even the top business gurus agree that there is a serious problem with recent executive pay. Some redistribution needs to occur here to give workers enough money to live in dignity. The same is true in government – it is immoral for MPs to receive pay raises after cutting social assistance and holding the line on modestly paid employees.

While Gordon Campbell has been an advocate for mental health services and research, he needs to recognize that social conditions are very important to the mental and physical health of the population. It is unwise to allow social conditions to exist that create a problem, which then has to be treated in the medical system.

While university endowment funds for psychiatric research are great, far more would be accomplished by improving social conditions. New and better treatments are necessary but many of the psychiatric problems we deal with on a day to day basis are largely the result of poor social conditions.

Treating the results of the problem of poverty is similar to treating disease caused by poor water rather than installing better infrastructure to improve the quality of water – as we have seen recently in several aboriginal communities.

We constantly hear about issues relating to our natural resources such as softwood lumber and petroleum but what about our people? Any nation’s most valuable resource is its people. These issues get far less press coverage but are exponentially more important.

Unfortunately, short term problems trump long term problems with news coverage and government policy and a loss of profit from softwood duties is more newsworthy than a loss of productivity or health due to poverty – and the reality is that it is a lot easier to create an academic university position in psychiatry than to eliminate poverty.


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