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Minimum wage increase falls short

$14 per hour helps create ‘fairer’ society the province has promised

Last week Premier Kathleen Wynne received a report from a provincial advisory panel that advised her to peg future minimum wage increases to inflation. She has now announced that Ontario's minimum wage will increase to $11 per hour. But this rate is not high enough to ensure that paid employment lifts people above the poverty line. As health providers from across the province who see firsthand the impact of poverty on health, we urge the Ontario government to implement a plan to raise the minimum wage to $14 per hour plus inflation indexation over the next two years.

Our experience confirms research evidence that working poor people in Ontario have higher rates of chronic conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, bronchitis and migraines, compared to people who are not poor. For decades research has shown us that income levels are the most important determinant of health and well-being. Recent reports in the Ontario Medical Review carefully detailed the impact of poverty on health and the Canadian Medical Association has issued a call for federal, provincial and territorial governments to prioritize action plans to eliminate poverty.

Consider the following:

  • •At a minimum wage of $11 an hour, it would still be tough to eat healthily. Ontario food banks report that 11 per cent of the 375,000 people who visit monthly are in the workforce, but do not earn enough to make ends meet.
  • An Ekos poll found that 23 per cent of Canadians cannot afford the medications they need.
  • On minimum wage you are unlikely to receive drug, dental and vision benefits that promote health and prevent avoidable illness. An Ekos poll found that 23 per cent of Canadians cannot afford the medications they need. If you have Type 2 diabetes and cannot afford medications and supplies (which cost, on average, $2,300 a year), you're at risk for heart attack, stroke, kidney disease and blindness.
  • Ministry of Health statistics show that in 2012 there were almost 58,000 visits to Ontario emergency rooms because of dental pain and abscesses. Why? Because, as the Ontario Public Health Agency recently reported, one in every five people in the province cannot visit a dentist because of the cost. When you earn minimum wage you cannot afford to take care of your teeth and gums, and your overall health is highly compromised.

As health service providers there is only so much we can do to treat the symptoms of poverty and low-wage work. It's time for healthier evidence-based government policy that prevents illness more in order to treat less. And because income levels are the most important factor in determining health and well-being, government policies that ensure all people in Ontario have secure and adequate incomes are an important place to start.

High returns will follow. A study by the Wellesley Institute demonstrated that an annual income increase of $1,000 for the poorest 20 per cent of Canadians would lead to nearly 10,000 fewer chronic health conditions. An economic study done for the Ontario Association of Food Banks in 2008 found that if the poorest 20 per cent of Ontario workers earned as much as those one step higher on the income ladder, the savings to Ontario's health-care system would amount to $2.9 billion.

Premier Kathleen Wynne has promised a "fairer society." Health Minister Deb Matthews has pledged to make Ontario "the healthiest place in North America to grow up and grow old." To keep these promises, we join with many others across the province to urge the provincial government to raise the minimum wage so that paid employment ensures people are not living in poverty. That means raising the minimum wage to $14 an hour.

It's a prescription that is long overdue.

Association of Ontario Health Centres, Association of Ontario Midwives, Canadian Association of Community Health Centres, Health Providers Against Poverty, Ontario Association of Public Health Dentistry, Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario.

This Op-Ed was published in the Hamilton Spectator on February 11, 2014

Tuesday, February 11, 2014