833,098 Canadians used food banks in March of 2013. Half of food bank users reported social assistance as their primary source of income, a quarter were single parent families, 11 percent were First Nations, Métis or Inuit, and 11 percent were recent immigrants. These Canadians come from a broad range of backgrounds, but they all have one thing in common: they are living in poverty.
It is well established that living in poverty contributes to poor health, such as a greater prevalence of diabetes and childhood obesity, babies born with low birth weights, and poorer mental health. The prescription for fixing these negative health outcomes is to reduce poverty. Ontario is currently developing its second Poverty Reduction Strategy, and we set out for the government how to build good health into poverty reduction.
Ensuring that children are able to grow up in families that have adequate resources is important. Growing up in poverty can lead to major differences in school readiness, and this affects ability to do well in school. We have previously blogged about how parents living in poverty change their babies’ diapers less frequently than parents that are well-off in order to make their supplies last longer. We have also blogged about how child care is so unaffordable in Canada that only wealthy families have choices about how to care for their children.
There are steps that can be taken now to ensure that children have a good start in life. The government can reinstate the increase to the Ontario Child Benefit that was scheduled for July 2013 but was delayed for a year. It can also change the way that child support payments are clawed back from parents who are receiving social assistance.
Child poverty is important, but we have to remember that poor children are living in poor families. And we have to remember that there are many other Ontarians without children who are living in poverty. We need to take steps to reduce poverty across-the-board. This means raising social assistance rates and ensuring that the minimum wage is set at a rate that ensures that work is a pathway out of poverty.
The high cost of housing is the single biggest expense for low, moderate and middle-income households. Many lower-income households are struggling to pay for housing and still have enough money left over for food – a key factor in driving many people to line up at food banks. The number one recommendation from Food Banks Canada is for adequate, long-term funding for affordable housing. The Wellesley Institute’s Precarious Housing in Canada gives a detailed overview of the impact of inadequate housing.
Food bank usage gives us a good look at what happens when we don’t address poverty. It’s time to commit to ensuring that all Canadians can afford to live a healthy life, free of wondering where the next meal will come from.