Can Money Buy You Health? The Health Impact of Pov e r t y
Living in poverty can mean the difference between sickness and health
When we use the word ‘health’, we often think about not being sick – but health is so much more than that! While we know that genetics and the choices we make affect our health, our well-being also depends heavily on environmental and societal factors. Not being able to read, being poor, having a low-paying job or being unemployed, living in substandard housing, breathing unclean air, drinking poor-quality water, experiencing high stress, living too far from a grocery store, and feeling isolated or unwelcome in our community are bad for our health and well-being. These individual, environmental, social, and economic factors are called the “determinants of health”. This report is part of a series of reports that looks at how some of these factors impact our health in Waterloo Region.
Poverty is a complex concept. While its most obvious feature is lack of income, there is an equally important social dimension to poverty. In a wealthy nation like Canada, poverty can be understood as the experience of material and social deprivation that prevents people, communities, and whole societies from reaching their full potential.1 Material deprivation means not having enough money to afford the necessities of life. Social deprivation refers to the exclusion and stigma that people may feel by not being able to participate in everyday activities like going for a coffee with a friend or going to a school friend’s birthday party. The worry and stress associated with living on the edge compromises both physical and emotional health.2 Since the dimensions of poverty are complex and subject to interpretation, they are difficult to measure. There is a tendency to understand poverty by relating characteristics (like income level) to outcomes (like occurrence of disease). While this is useful, it is also important to examine the personal experiences of those who live with material and social deprivation.2 The Low Income Cut Off (LICO) is a commonly used measure of low income produced by Statistics Canada. It is a relative measure and reports the income level at which household needs for food, clothing, and shelter will take, on average, a share of after-tax income that is 20 per cent higher than the average family.3 More recently, measures of income gap are being used to add depth to the more common measures. One measure looks at the depth of poverty by measuring the amount of money that a household living in poverty falls short of the LICO.2 Attempts to measure the social deprivation associated with poverty are made by asking questions in surveys about community belonging and social support and by listening to and describing the lived experience of those who are poor.
Describing Poverty in Waterloo Region According to the Statistics Canada after-tax LICO, 7.5 per cent of the population of Waterloo Region was living with low income in 2005.4 In terms of the depth of poverty, the average income of all low-income households in Ontario was $6,900 below the LICO for 2005.5 Low income is well known to exist in certain segments of the population in Waterloo Region more than others. Table 1 illustrates this.
Table 1: Percentage of certain segments of the population in Waterloo Region living under the after-tax LICO, 2005 Population
Percentage living under LICO
Recent Immigrants (1996-2001)
Unattached person 15 years and older
Female-headed lone parent families
Children under 6
Male-headed lone parent families
Source: 2006 Census Statistics, Extracted from SIS on July 21, 2008 a Data not yet available from 2006 Census: source 2001 Census Statistics b Data from Kitchener Census Met