Poverty affects health, studies show

By  Michael Swan, The Catholic Register
  • November 24, 2006
Dr. Penny SutcliffeTORONTO - Poverty kills just as surely as smoking or living off burgers, fries and ice cream, and the church leaders who run Ontario's food banks, emergency shelters and family counselling programs are prepared to back that claim up with science.

In  more than a decade that the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition has been making twice yearly pilgrimages to Queen's Park to lobby Ontario politicians on behalf of the poor, the alliance of pastors and parish activists has made its arguments based on the Gospel, social justice, common values, ethics and political wisdom. This year, for the first time, ISARC is appealing to science.

The science of the social determinants of health is well established and clearly shows poverty has more to do with deciding who is healthy and who lives longer than any other factor, Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, Sudbury and District Health Unit medical officer of health, told the ISARC gathering at the provincial legislature Nov. 21.

"There's good scientific evidence on the impact of poverty on health," Sutcliffe said.

Sutcliffe urged the faith leaders to advocate on behalf of the poor using the scientific studies of the Chronic Disease Prevention Association of Canada, the Canadian Population Health Initiative, the World Health Organization and others. By using science to argue for a higher minimum wage, more social housing, subsidized child care, higher social assistance payments and more, ISARC can appeal to politicians of all political stripes, said Sutcliffe.

"You don't have to believe in a particular ideology," she said.

Sutcliffe pointed out a 2004 Canadian Population Health Initiative study which found that the 20 per cent of men at the top of the income tables live an average of five years longer than men with the lowest 20 per cent of incomes. The rich were also 25-per-cent less likely to die of heart disease.

International studies by the World Health Organization and others shows that countries where the rich have gotten richer and the poor poorer have worse public health statistics, said Charles Gardiner, Simcoe and Muskoka medical officer of health.

"People in society are not necessarily aware of this link between public health and incomes. And it would help if they were," Gardiner told the faith leaders.

Longtime ISARC campaigner Brice Balmer said the medical officers of health were opening the door to a whole new way for church social justice campaigners to approach their subject.

"A lot of faith people have heard about social justice, and there are a lot of turnoffs," Balmer said.

By taking "more of a quantitative than a qualitative approach" church-based advocates for the poor can sidestep the accusation that campaigns are really just covert left-wing politics, said Balmer.

But Balmer doesn't want ISARC to simply put the statistics and scientific studies in front of politicians. The first step is for faith leaders to convince their own middle-class congregations, he said.

"We have to make the argument in our faith communities," he said.

It's a message that can get through to parishioners through organizations such as the Catholic Women's League and the St. Vincent de Paul Society, said Laurie Van den Hurk, the archdiocese of Toronto's south Simcoe parish social ministry co-ordinator. She doesn't think parish councils or pastors will resist social justice campaigns backed by scientific data.

"The work of the Catholic Church and all churches is always about transformation. Our faith calls us to action," she said.

Teaming up with the 36 regional medical officers of health in Ontario is really nothing new to church campaigners who have always sought allies when they advocate for the poor, said Van den Hurk.

"Social issues have to be addressed on a collaborative level," she said.

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