As we live through an unprecedented crisis, the upcoming Federal Budget and future COVID-19 recovery plans must establish a new normal to create a stronger, more equitable Canada. To establish this new normal, we have to start by first recognizing that many other pandemics – including racism, poverty, inadequate and unaffordable housing, and scarce mental health resources – put equity-seeking groups at greater risk than others.
For years, Wellesley Institute research has shown that there are significant health disparities for low-income and racialized people. The pandemic intensified these disparities – as any pandemic would – and as every previous economic crisis has. Some of this is because we did not focus on equity in our pandemic response. We must not make the same mistake in the recovery. We must focus on the needs of racialized populations hardest hit by the pandemic, especially the Black population. As we rebuild, we have to be aware of who has been most affected by the incredible economic turmoil, including racialized populations, low-income workers, and women.
The budget should foster equity, and it should support good health. Mental health, well-being and physical health are the cornerstones of a successful and sustainable recovery – we all need them if we are to contribute to, and be helped by, the recovery. Luckily, 85 per cent of health risk is social, so a budget that acts on the social determinants of health can be effective – and that should be this budget’s focus.
If the budget prioritizes equity and health, it will be a budget that builds a sustainable recovery. There are four particular health measures we recommend for a budget focused on an equitable recovery.
First, there is no health without mental health. In fact, because of the impacts of mental health on earning capacity and the economy, there is also less wealth without mental health. We need a new social contract for mental health – a ten-year plan that brings governments, business, and civil society together to reduce the reported rate of pre-pandemic emotional distress by half, decrease the number of children exposed to adverse childhood experiences that lead to poorer mental health by half, and reduce the suicide rate by half.
These goals must be achieved equitably for all parts of our society, and must also eliminate chronic homelessness, poverty and fight racism in our systems and across society. This will enable and strengthen the recovery for all of us. We urge the government to announce the launch of this plan with a clear and present date to implement it.
Second, housing should be safe, affordable, and healthy. Many low-income and racialized people are unable to live safely in their current housing. The pandemic has shown us that we do not only need more housing, we need healthy housing. We would like the budget to focus on the quality of affordable housing and ensuring that it is healthy. It needs to address the needs of equity-seeking groups, particularly Black and Indigenous Canadians, and ensure that they make equitable and significant gains in housing affordability and it should also address the coming crisis of evictions among residential tenants by including real arrears relief.
Third, ending poverty. We and other experts recognize the government has made significant efforts to reduce the number of people, especially children, living in poverty. However, this has not gone far enough – and it will not be enough until no one is forced to live in poverty and suffer the immense damage that poverty inflicts on their health.
For a new normal that is better than the old, the aim should be to create a country where people thrive rather than just survive. The government’s aim to expand the middle class should be based on the ability for people to thrive and be happy and healthy. Wellesley has an operational model – the Thriving Income – of what it costs to thrive. We urge the government to adopt this as a target which will drive the important work they have done, while continuing to help the middle class and those who seek to join it.
Finally, creating good jobs. Bad jobs are bad for health and are bad for the recovery. We applaud the government’s commitment to creating a million new jobs to build this recovery, but the budget and future economic development work must also focus on producing good quality jobs with a thriving wage, and include comprehensive benefits, sick days, and proper worker protections. Jobs need to be healthy, safe and be built on modern, progressive employment standards.
We urge the government to include a commitment to improving the Canada Labour Code for federally regulated workers and to guarantee that not one dollar of recovery or stimulus investments go to profits for owners providing bad jobs to Canadians.
This budget will set the stage for our recovery, and for so much of our future. We hope the government and all legislators will take this opportunity to fight for a new normal that ensures we build back better, healthier, and successfully.