Healthy living hard to come by for low-income Albertans

FFWD Weekly (Calgary), 30 October 2003

The provincial government's efforts to encourage Albertans to lead healthier lives may not be as beneficial as initially projected.

Government funded anti-tobacco campaigns and fitness ventures have been implemented to lessen the strain on the health care system, but according to critics, there is a larger problem that needs to be addressed.

Canada has an international reputation in the health field of having outlined concepts on what makes a population healthy, says Dr. Dennis Raphael of the School of Health Policy and Management at York University.

However, he argues that the Alberta government is not investing in all levels of society.

(Provincial) governments are focused only on the holy trinity of risk—diet, tobacco and physical activity—and not on the crucial determinants of health, says Dr. Raphael.

For example, his research cites a Poverty and Health Care Reform report prepared by Social Issues Committee YWCA of Calgary that identifies poverty as the single most important health factor.

Low-income Canadians are twice as likely to report poor health as compared to high-income Canadians, says Dr. Raphael.

Lack of affordable housing and government assistance has left many Calgarians on the streets, cold and hungry.

Usually this stuff (homelessness) is not a lifestyle choice, but the governments act as if it is, says Dr. Raphael.

For example, he notes that Alberta has one of the largest gaps between the wages of men and women, the lowest minimum wage in Canada and one of the lowest social assistance rates in Canada.

Cheryl Ann Rideout is one of many people who have experienced the link between poverty and health first-hand.

She came to Calgary from Nova Scotia in hopes of a better future for her and her family, only to end up homeless and scrambling to find food to feed her four children.

It (poverty) definitely has a big impact on health—I would say major impact, she says.

According to Rideout, lack of housing was at the root of all of her hardships.

Sometimes, the bills were less important and food was more important, says Rideout, who made the decision to sacrifice shelter to feed her children.

While avoiding the stereotypical welfare diet of Kraft dinner and bologna, she struggled to provide proper nutrition for her children.

Nutrition is hard because they say ‘eat this, eat that, eat right for proper health.’ Well, try going into a grocery store and affording all these foods. Sometimes it just doesn't work out that way. It's hard a lot of the time to buy the proper foods for them, says Rideout, who often went without food so her kids could eat.

To have to depend on a food bank just to get through is not a good feeling.

Food wasn't the only thing that was hard to come by—lack of proper income also meant lack of medical treatment and attention.

...Sometimes you just can't afford to run to a doctor when you need to.

It's hard to be able to just have that (a healthy lifestyle) if you don't have the dollars to fork over.

At the present time, Rideout has put her children in government care, and is hoping in the future she will be able to provide for them.

According to Rideout, the government has overlooked a major problem that could eventually add to the decaying of society.

Dr. Dennis Raphael will be speaking on poverty and the social determinants of health on November 5 at the Carpenters' Union Hall in Kensington. City of Calgary staff is invited to the daytime presentation while the evening presentation from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. will be a community forum.