December 30, 2010

Cutting health costs by cutting poverty

What does Putting Food in the Budget have to do with health care spending in Canada?

If you are at all familiar with the new knowledge about the social determinants of health you will know the answer.

Poverty and inequality make people sick.

Reducing poverty and inequality pays off in better health and lower health care costs.

Diabetes, for example, is an illness with especially strong links to poverty and inequality. Incredibly, poverty is a greater risk factor in diabetes than diet or exercise. Canadians with annual incomes under $30,000 are at least twice as likely to contract diabetes as those with incomes over $80,000. Poverty thus drives up the overall incidence of diabetes – and public-health costs in the process.

Researchers estimate that one in 10 hospital admissions in Canada are due to diabetes and its complications; the Canadian Diabetes Association tallies total direct health costs at over $13-billion per year.

Ironically, however, while medicare shells out billions to treat diabetes, we penny-pinch when it comes to supporting poor people so they don’t get it in the first place. Ottawa denies employment insurance to most of Canada’s unemployed; meanwhile, the provinces underfund social assistance (even programs with direct health impacts, like Ontario’s special diet allowance).

-- Jim Stanford, Globe and Mail
The Put Food in the Budget Challenge is all about putting at least another $100 a month into the incomes of adults receiving social assistance in Ontario. Current rates are so low that people cannot afford basic nutritious foods needed for a healthy diet.

But there seems to be little political will to make that relatively small investment that can deliver big health cost savings.

The Ontario Government is preparing its 2011 budget. Why not contact Premier McGuinty  and let him know you want him put food in the budget this year?

December 21, 2010

Support the Report -- Help Make a Breakthrough on Poverty in Canada

Last week I posted about the Poverty Free Waterloo Region petition. One of the items on that petition is a call for the Federal Government to implement a strategy to eradicate poverty in Canada.

There has been movement at the Federal level. Recently the Human Resources Committee (HUMA) released a report calling for a Federal poverty reduction strategy. Karri Munn-Venn from Citizens for Public Justice gives a brief summary of that report on the CPJ website. There is something you can do to support the call for a federal plan to end poverty in Canada.

Visit Make Poverty History and send a message to Minister Diane Finley, the Minister for Human Resources and Skills Development to respond positively to the recommendations in the HUMA report. Your message will also be forwarded to you MP.

December 20, 2010

Local Food and Local Food Processing: part of a poverty free Ontario

Here is a very interesting item from the Waterloo Region Food News e-newsletter.
Small Farmers creating own Processing Capacity to fill void left by big guys

Two large global processing plants have closed in Soutwestern Ontario in the past three years: Cangro, which processed peaches and pears for Del Monte, and Smuckers, which processed cucumbers for Bick’s Pickles. In response, farmers like Wolfgang Pfenning have invested in their own processing facilities. But as Foodlink’s Executive Director Peter Katona says, while Ontario farmers are certainly capable of growing quality foods, they can’t compete on price with imported foods. Read the feature article on local processing in The Tyee, part of their larger series on scaling up local food in BC and Ontario.

It is really worth reading the article in the Tyee. There are some challenging issues we need to be aware of if we are going to achieve a poverty free Ontario.

The key challenge is that as consumers, we have to be committed to paying the real price for the food we eat if local farmers, food processors and farm laborers are going to be able to earn a decent livelihood. Farm labour costs in Ontario are higher than in other parts of the world. That means local farmers cannot compete on price with their international competition -- be that from the States, Latin America or China. It is easy to shop for the lowest price food. But that often means poverty wages for producers.

Buying local is a bit like buying Fair Trade. It means paying the higher price so that the people who produce our food can live free from poverty.

Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to make that choice. But if you can, every purchase you make of locally produced food or Fair Trade products is an investment in a poverty free Ontario and a poverty free world.

December 16, 2010

Poverty Free Waterloo Region

On Friday, December 10, I was in Cambridge, Ontario for the Waterloo Region release of Persistent Poverty: voices from the margins -- the report on the ISARC social audit. At that event, I joined other members of Poverty Free Waterloo Region in launching a petition endorsing the Regional Municipalitiy of Waterloo's work on creating a Regional Poverty Reduction strategy.

If you live in Waterloo Region, please take a moment to visit the Poverty Free Waterloo Region website and sign the petition. And please spread the word. Here is the basice message of the appeal.

Support the call for a
Poverty Free Waterloo Region!

In our community, more than 7,000 families and 12,000 single adults live in poverty. It's time to take action.

Please sign the petition to
1. Endorse the Region of Waterloo's initiative to create a strategic plan for a Poverty Free Waterloo Region

2. Call on the Regional Council to reinvest the savings from the uploading of social assistance benefits to fund poverty reduction initiatives in Waterloo Region.

3. Call upon the Provincial Government and all parties in the provincial legislature to reaffirm their commitment to the Poverty Reduction Act.

4. Call upon the Federal Government to develop a strategy to eradicate poverty in Canada.

The full declaration and petition is available at

December 15, 2010

A Steel and Concrete Christmas

My colleague Eileen Henderson, coordinator of MCCO's Restorative Justice programs, sent this along.

A Steel and Concrete Christmas


It was the beginning of a three-and-a-half-year bit. I’d be spending my first Christmas in prison at age seventeen. As the judge at my trial said, “Slow down, young man!”

Prison provided me with the opportunity for introspection. Looking inward I thought, If I’m going to get out of prison and stay out, I need to make some changes.

Spending Christmas with five hundred guys can be brutal. Initiating festivities through seasonal flourishes, like Christmas trees, wreaths, or songs with stirring lyrics, was next to impossible.

The cell block was two tiers high. Each of the thirty cells had a bed, toilet, sink, desk, and chair, all in moldy green or queasy yellow. Our gray shirts and sand-colored pants were an ideal contrast to the navy blue staff uniforms. Over time, this lackluster sea of mind-numbing colors produced sensory deprivation.

The prison was home to cons serving out their allotted sentences. The usual tension mellowed at Christmas as an unofficial truce was struck between cons and officers. Some inmates and officers even went so far as to break the code of “No Fraternization Between Staff and Prisoners” to shake hands and converse. On any other day of the year, this would have been considered dangerous.

God showed no intention of neglecting us in this hostile environment. It was Christmas in prison—not merry, but Christmas nonetheless. Allow me to introduce you to a few of the guys who lived on my block.

René, a muscular French Canadian, was tattooed and scarred from head to toe from prison scrapes, street fights, and involuntary arrests. Closing in on forty, he tended to leave most of the squabbles to younger cons. Once he told me, “I’m like the old baseball pitcher. I throw as hard as I ever did, but it doesn’t go as fast.” Like most old pitchers, warriors, and convicts, René recognized the fact that he was no longer at the top of his game. He found a pen with his name on it and began writing his memoirs; he wrote himself right out of prison. René discovered salvation through a ballpoint pen. He eventually published his autobiography and received the governor general’s award for best Canadian book of the year.

Chris, a fine-looking, athletic man in his twenties, was into sports and excelled at baseball. He combed his dark hair straight back. His case received national attention. At fourteen years old, he had been the youngest person in Canada to be sentenced to the death penalty. His sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. The institution arranged to place him in a stable workshop and to be lodged in a cell on a range that housed younger, less volatile inmates.

A few of the older officers had taken Chris under their wing, probably because they saw something within him that resembled their own children. They unofficially adopted Chris. No doubt that humanitarian act saved him from various assaults or worse. Because these officers, like many other Canadians, were convinced of Chris’s innocence, they were willing to take risks on his behalf. Several years later, Chris was released, changed his name, and relocated to a new province. He was released in the middle of the night to thwart roving news reporters. He married and lives an exemplary life.

I never saw him again, but I admire him for the Christmases he survived inside. Chris used to man the prison radio booth in the evenings. I appreciated when he’d play Bob Dylan’s music; those songs kept us connected with the community to which we would one day return.

D.J. paced inside his cell. As I looked in on him that Christmas morning, he was walking in circles, stopping on occasion to gaze at his mother’s photo. She had died in prison. He spent his childhood traveling through foster homes. As a troubled teenager, D.J. often spent time in jail. When I first entered prison, he took care of me, seeing that I had tobacco and papers until my first canteen arrived.

An important resource in my inner journey was our padre, a silver-haired former paratrooper. He established a special rapport with all of us, speaking each Sunday about responsibility, reconciliation, remorse, repentance, restoration, redemption, restitution, rebirth, and resurrection; they were lofty concepts, but when the padre spoke, we understood. Some of us grabbed hold of these concepts and began integrating them into our lives. Prison was a tough testing ground for practicing these principles.

The padre organized a Christmas Eve service. He recounted the Nativity with deep emotion and solemnity, and then we went back to our lonely cells. I wrote a letter home telling my parents about “the goodie bag” the prison gave us, which included butterscotch mints and a Christmas cake.

About 9:00 PM, D.J. lifted his harmonica and began playing “Silent Night.” His music guided us to a foreign town in another time. The cell block teetered on the edge of something supreme.

Although we were in prison, Christmas and its sacredness were not. We wept alone, because that’s done in private. That evening, no one screamed out in nightmare anguish. We slept soundly. That Christmas was simple and stunning, revolutionary and reverent.


A Steel and Concrete Christmas. Reprinted by permission of Rod Carter. © 2007, 2008 Rod Carter from the book “Serving Productive Time: Stories, Poems, and Tips to Inspire Positive Change from Inmates, Prison Staff, and Volunteers” by Tom Lagana and Laura Lagana. See website:


Rod Carter was the director of the Restorative Justice Program at Queen’s Theological College. He was formerly regional chaplain for the Correctional Service of Canada for five years. An ex-offender, he received a criminal pardon in 1977. He is a contributing author in “Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul,” “Serving Productive Time,” and “Serving Time, Serving Others.” He died in his sleep in May 2010.


from “Serving Productive Time” (for a pdf version, see: )

December 9, 2010

Persistent Poverty and the Rise of Canada's Richest 1%

I have been reading ISARC's latest social audit report: Persistent Poverty: voices from the margins -- Published by Between the Lines and just released this month (December 2010).

Sadly it is a familiar story echoing the four other social audits of the past twenty years. Incomes too low to live on -- whether you are working for low pay or relying on social assistance -- not enough affordable housing, hunger, lack of affordable transit. Too many of our neighbours are struggling to get by.

And we are pitching in to try to help out -- with donations to food banks and volunteering in out of the cold programs.

But it takes a toll in health and human dignity. A quote that has stuck with me:
"When you feed the poor, please ask for their forgiveness. You are giving them a bowl of soup but they give up their dignity."
You really need to read Persistent Poverty at the same time you read the latest report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives: The Rise of Canada's Richest 1% by Armine Yalnizyan.

If persistent poverty has become a hallmark of our age, it is integrally linked to what Yanizyan refers to as "the great U-turn." It is the stunning reversal in the trend toward greater equality that characterized most of the 20th century. In the past thirty years, Canada's richest one percent have reaped the lion's share of income growth. At the same time, they have seen their tax rates drop to levels not seen since before the Second World War. The trend is most pronounced for the richest 0.01 percent -- the 2,500 Canadians whose average income was more than $3.8 million in 2008.

One thing that the richest today have in common with everyone else is that most of their income comes from work. That is different from an earlier era where the wealthy received more of the income from investments.

But the wages of those at the top today far outstrip the earnings of most Canadians. So we have the reality of the people who came to the ISARC social audit and talked about their travails -- working longer and harder and not being able to make ends meet while folks at the other end of the spectrum are bringing in sums that it are hard to imagine. Can their work really be worth that much more?

Why worry about inequality?
It may offend one's sense of justice to know that the economic prosperity of the past decade has been shared so unevenly. That injustice entails social costs as well. There is compelling evidence that growing inequality is bad for societies and harms the well-being of the poor and the rich in those societies. Or in the words of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, authors of The Spirit Level, "more equal socieities work better for everyone."

This reality suggests that if we are ever going to put an end to the persistent poverty documented by ISARC's social audit, we also need to reverse the trend that has delivered incomes so disproportionately to the richest few in our society. We need to create a more equal society for the benefit of all.

December 2, 2010

Special Diet Allowance Saved

The Government of Ontario has stepped back from its plan to cancel the Special Diet Allowance program. This is the program that provides additional income for social assistance recipients with special dietary needs due to a medical condition. (See my Special Diet Anxiety post for background.)

On Tuesday, November 30 Minister Meilleur announced the launch of the long-awaited social assistance review. As part of that announcement, she said that the Special Diet Allowance would be included in that review - which will take 18 months. In the meantime, the Government will look to the recommendations from its Special Diets Allowance Expert review panel for ways to comply with the Human Rights Code.

You can find more information about what the changes to the Special Diet Allowance will mean, including a list of conditions covered.

In short, this has been a victory for advocacy. To the Government's credit, it listened to the concerns raised by health professionals, special diet allowance recipients and many groups, including Mennonite Central Committee Ontario. Special thanks goes to the Income Security Advocacy Centre, the ODSP Action Coalition and the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario for their leadership in helping to save the Special Diet Allowance program.