Health transfers made directly to each Canadian

By Joe Foster 

This week, we recognized the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on Oct. 17. Unfortunately, Canadians have come to accept that poverty is inevitable. Is this true? Actually, we can indeed make poverty history. The costs to our economy and well-being are too significant to do otherwise.

Next to the weather, health care and its costs are probably the items most talked about by Canadians. There are two factors that influence our health and therefore our health costs. The first is the up-front cost (preventative health care) and the second is mopping up afterwards (generally referred to as treatment).

We can guarantee two things: costs will continue to increase and the various levels of government will continue to argue over who pays. And if the statistics are correct, and if we continue to do the same things, our general health and well-being will increase only marginally, if at all, in spite of increasing costs.

There is now much evidence that poverty is the critical determinant affecting health in its broadest sense. We also know that simply pouring more dollars into our current health-care system doesn’t solve things for people living near or below the poverty line. As stated in Strategies for Population Health, by a federal-provincial-territorial health advisory committee in 1994: “In particular, there is mounting evidence that the contribution of medicine and health care is quite limited. On the other hand, there are strong and growing indications that other factors such as living and working conditions are crucially important for a healthy population.” 


The federal government traditionally balks when provinces ask for increased sharing of their health costs. To the feds, the difficulty is that transfers come with limited evidence that these increasing grants are effectively addressing poverty or health problems.

One way to solve the impasse is to look at new ways to approach this dilemma. We are already doing this, in part, through the Guaranteed Income Supplements for seniors and the recent financial additions for family support. However, because of the piecemeal nature of our poverty reduction programs, overall progress is less than satisfactory.

Understandably as we live longer, there will be increasing costs for health services for elderly people. This can be reduced marginally by promoting healthier living. However, a major area of health costs, as pointed out above, is associated with poverty. More and more data are emerging showing the enormous costs of poverty, not just the social costs but the direct cost to our health care and other service systems.

There is no magic arrow that will kill poverty. However, it has been proven that direct cash grants can have a major positive impact on poverty, health, and their related social ills. This is a logical way to avoid battling over increased health transfers. Instead, providing cash grants from the federal government directly through a national guaranteed liveable income is administratively efficient and would have immediate impact on individuals, families, and the community.

There is growing evidence that providing a basic guaranteed income to individuals increases self-reliance and the ability of individuals to take charge of their own lives. Moreover, this program is easier to monitor and measure, which allows for fine-tuning and the elimination of duplicate programs.

Time, however, is of the essence. In view of this rapidly changing pressure on work as we know it that has its roots in globalization and technology, we need to take action quickly. For example, the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship estimated that 42 percent of employment in Canada is at high risk of automation in the next two decades.

In the final analysis we should recognize that as with any national initiative, questions still remain as to how best to implement a cash grant to individual Canadians. Answers are becoming more evident with the research underway on past and current programs in Canada and around the world. It is therefore in the federal government’s interest to participate in the programs being planned, such as a pilot to be launched in Ontario in 2017.

We need leadership. Poverty is a violation of our human rights and bars too many Canadians from presently participating fully in our society.

Joe Foster is the Green Party of Canada’s human rights critic. This article originally ran in The Hill Times.