Inequality is killing us


INEQUALITY IS NEVER GOOD FOR OUR HEALTH. The proof of this grows more evident and more obvious as inequality continues its uncontrolled growth. A recent research paper produced for the Canadian Labour Institute, “The Future of Work and A Modern Industrial Strategy for Canada,” highlights this truth.

The psychological effects of poverty are by now well established. Those at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap, especially the ones who have no hope of anything better, suffer from more anxiety and depression. They are victims of mental illness at a rate 3-4 times higher than the highest-income Canadians. That shows itself in various pathological ways—violence, alcohol abuse and drug use, for example, as well as suicide and self-harm.

Physical ill-health is also a hallmark of poverty. Obesity, for example—a major cause of diabetes and heart problems—is ubiquitous among the poor. It’s not a matter of unwise food choices and a lazy lifestyle, as some may imagine: carbohydrate-rich foods are relatively cheap, and fast food is significantly more available in low-income areas.

The poorest 20% of Canadians experience more than twice the rate of heart disease and diabetes than the top 20%, a 60% greater chance of suffering two or more chronic illnesses, three times the rate of bronchitis, and nearly twice the rate of arthritis and rheumatism. They have a 358% higher rate of disability, 95% more ulcers, and 33% more circulatory disorders.

Poor kids are sicker as kids and as adults

More than one in seven Canadian children live in poverty, and their health is affected through adulthood. As kids, they will more frequently suffer from malnutrition, asthma, diabetes, and poor oral health. When they grow up, they can expect higher rates of addiction, mental health problems and physical disabilities—and a greater likelihood of premature death.

A study cited in the CLI research paper found that inequality increases the likelihood of dying prematurely, from causes such as heart attack, diabetes, cancer, HIV and respiratory diseases. During the period 1991-2006, men in poverty in Canada died of cancer at more than twice the rate of top-income women. There would be 40,000 fewer premature deaths if the entire Canadian population were as healthy as the wealthiest 20%.

Among First Nations and Inuit, the statistics are appalling. Between 2008 and 2010, more than half of FN people living on reserve were unable to purchase nutritious food, an obvious cause of ill-health. Inuit, meanwhile, live under a cloud of food insecurity. Lack of access to nourishing food is a key factor accounting for rising tuberculosis rates among First Nations (Manitoba and Saskatchewan) and Inuit. The latter have a TB rate 50 times higher than that of the general Canadian population.

But inequality has far wider health consequences. Worried about spiralling healthcare costs, and the effect upon our quality of care and our governments’ ability to manage? Poverty is a major driver of healthcare spending: it’s estimated to cost our health care system at least $6.2 billion annually. That’s over 14% of the total cost of acute care hospitalizations, prescription drugs and medical consultations.

Poverty, then, is making people sick, but we’re all affected. Addressing inequality in Canada is or should be an urgent health priority—not just for the poor, but for everyone.

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