Poverty and health is an election issue

Poverty and health is an election issue

Dr. Trevor Hancock

1 October 2019

702 words

Forty years ago I wrote about two principles that I considered fundamental to the health of the population: Ecological sanity and social justice. If we do not pay attention to these principles and what we now call the ecological and social determinants of health, the health of the population will be seriously harmed.

Last week I wrote about the first of these as an election issue – we are acting in Canada in an ecologically insane manner, and it threatens our health, especially the health of today’s young people. Today I turn to the issue of social justice, especially as represented by poverty, where yet again young people are the most at risk of harm.

It is hardly a secret, nor a revelation, that poverty is bad for health. So you would think any government, and any party wanting to be the government, would make this an important area of focus. But persistent inequality surely tells us that the Liberals and Conservatives – who between them have always formed the government in Canada – simply don’t care about poverty and its harmful effects upon the health of Canadians. If they did, they would have done something to fix it.

As it happens, the Victoria Foundation released its excellent Vital Signs report this week, so we have a good picture of poverty in Victoria. Compared to the overall poverty rate in BC as a whole and in Canada we do quite well, but that is hardly a basis for satisfaction or complacency. The overall poverty rate for Greater Victoria was 14 percent – one in seven people here live in poverty!

The rate among children is higher, at 16 percent, and double that for single parent families, almost one in three of whom live in poverty. So much for the federal Parliament’s pledge to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000! The lowest rate is among seniors, at 10 percent – which raises the question of why it seems to be OK for children to experience more poverty than their grandparents.

Moreover, living above the poverty line is hardly an easy life. BC’s minimum wage under the NDP has now gone up to $13.85 an hour, just enough to lift a single person working full time for a full year above the poverty line. But the living wage – the hourly wage needed for a family of two working parents with two young children if they are to maintain an adequate quality of life in this region – is $19.39 an hour.

In addition to these direct measures of poverty, we must also be concerned about the degree of inequality in society. The 2016 report by the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) program at the University of Waterloo notes: “Unequal income distribution is detrimental to the wellbeing of Canadians because it is related to financial instability and poorer economic growth”. Unequal distribution of income is measured by the Gini coefficient, where “a score of zero would represent a perfectly equal distribution of income” – so the lower the score the more equal the distribution.

Using Statistics Canada data, the CIW reports the Gini coefficient in Canada has risen from 0.290 in 1994 to hover between 0.312 and 0.322 since 2000; it was 0.319 in 2014. The OECD reports it was 0.31 in 2017 not as unequal as the UK (0.36) and the USA (0.39), but much more unequal than Finland and Belgium (0.27) or Norway, Denmark and Iceland (0.26).

But the evidence is clear that rich countries that have lower levels of inequality do better on a wide range of health and social outcomes. In other words, reducing poverty is good for the country as a whole, for everyone, not just for those living in poverty.

These levels of poverty and inequality are a disgrace in a country this rich and supposedly socially aware. So ask your candidates what is your party’s plan – not hopes and wishes and intentions, but actual plan – to eliminate child poverty in Canada, and to reduce levels of inequality and poverty to be at least equal to the best performing countries in the OECD. Because if they don’t have such a plan, it is clear they do not take the health of Canadians seriously.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019





Extinction a worthy election issue

Extinction a worthy election issue

Dr. Trevor Hancock

24 September 2019

701 words

This past week we have seen young people (and their parents, grandparents and other supportive adults) taking to the streets worldwide to protest against government and societal inaction on climate change. They are angry, and they have every right to be. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said at the Youth Climate Summit: “My generation until now has failed to preserve the planet”.

For many, climate change is or should be one of the most important issues in the federal election. After all, we are hearing increasingly desperate calls to action from the scientists monitoring climate change. They see change happening more dramatically and more rapidly than they expected.

But it is not just climate change that we should be worried about; other major global changes are underway at the same time, changes that are as serious as climate change, if not more so. These include depletion of vital resources such as forests, fisheries, fresh water, topsoil and farmlands; widespread pollution, including food chain contamination; declines in the populations of many species and an increased rate of extinctions.

Moreover, these global changes are not distinct from each other, but interact in ways that almost always make things worse. For example, climate change warms the oceans, harming coral reefs that are key ocean nurseries, while CO2 emissions acidify the oceans, which harms reproduction and growth among molluscs and other species. On top of this, over-fishing and habitat changes such as we see around the Northwest and elsewhere are further depleting fish stocks.

Clearing the Amazon to create farmland hastens climate change, destroys habitat and reduces biodiversity, while intensive agriculture and widespread pesticide use further reduces biodiversity. Furthermore some of these pesticides and other persistent organic pollutants bio-accumulate in food chains and disrupt endocrine and immune systems and the brain; they may be contributing to reproductive failure and immune system dysfunction in many species.

The result of all this is that we are triggering a sixth ‘Great extinction’ – the last one, 65 million years ago, saw the end of the dinosaurs. But before we see actual extinctions, we see declines in populations, as a report last week in Science noted: “extinction begins with loss in abundance of individuals that can result in compositional and functional changes of ecosystems”.

That same report noted “a net loss approaching 3 billion birds, or 29% of 1970 abundance” among North American birds. We have seen massive declines in other species, including frogs, insects and fish. Globally, populations of large freshwater animals (fish, reptiles, amphibians and mammals that can reach 30 kg in weight) “declined by 88 percent from 1970 and 2012”, a 2109 report noted, with losses of between 97 and 99 percent in Europe, Asia, and northern Africa.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF)’s Living Planet Index, which monitors population counts for over 4,000 freshwater, marine and land vertebrates (mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians) declined 60 percent from 1970 to 2014.

The overall picture was summed up by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) earlier this year: “The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900. More than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reef-forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened”.

The main culprits, the IPBES reported, are changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution and invasive alien species. A 2019 study on declines in insect species identified much the same set of factors at play: Us, in other words.

We would do well to remember that we too are a species, and that although right now we are more a threatening species than a threatened species, that can change. As the WWF report notes, “biodiversity has been described as the ‘infrastructure’ that supports all life on earth. It is, simply, a prerequisite for our modern, prosperous human society to exist, and to continue to thrive”.

So yes, climate change should be an important issue in this election, but we need to raise our sights and make extinction an election issue too. Ask your candidates if they will declare both a climate and an extinction crisis NOW!

© Trevor Hancock, 2019