The health of Ontarians living in poverty has declined with the tightening labour market, according to a new report being released Tuesday.
The working poor, who have seen both wages and working conditions deteriorate, have experienced the sharpest decline in their health, says the study by Toronto’s Wellesley Institute.
Between 1996 and 2009, the percentage of working poor Ontarians who reported their health was “excellent or very good” dropped from 68 per cent to just 49 per cent. The proportion who reported “fair or poor” health more than doubled, from 8 per cent to 19 per cent.
The percentage of modest to upper-income workers in excellent health fell just 6 percentage points, from 72 per cent to 66 per cent during this period.
The report, titled “Rising Inequality, Declining Health: Health Outcomes and the Working Poor,” used a new definition of the working poor developed by the Metcalf Foundation in 2012, and cross-referenced it with Statistics Canada labour survey data that asked working-age adults to rate their overall health.
The study is “a pretty good reflection of my life,” said Toronto single mother Naim Alli, 53.
Since immigrating to Canada from Guyana about 20 years ago, Alli has cleaned houses, offered esthetic services in a spa, and worked as a retail clerk in several drugstores. But with each new job, her wages have dropped, while the work has become more physically taxing.
She lost two teeth to abscesses because she had no dental insurance to cover checkups, and she developed a chronic back problem while working long hours on her feet with few breaks.
“My health has definitely suffered,” said Alli, whose children are now in their 20s. “I have constant back pain. My whole body aches.”
“I have not been able to buy healthy food for my kids or myself,” she added.
Alli’s failing health forced her to quit her retail job in 2009. She is hoping to find another job but worries she may be no further ahead.
“The cost of living is always going up and the minimum wage has been frozen for three years,” she said.
Alli volunteers for the Worker’s Action Centre, a workers’ collective that is lobbying for a $14 minimum wage. At that rate, a single person working 35 hours a week would be able to live about 10 per cent above Ontario’s poverty line. The province’s current minimum wage is $10.25.
Increasing the minimum wage and better enforcing employment standards are low-cost measures Ontario’s financially strapped government could take to ease the plight of the province’s working poor, said Block.
Queen’s Park could also modernize the provincial Labour Relations Act to boost worker protection in sales and services jobs, where most low-wage workers are employed, she added.
“We need to be looking at how we turn bad jobs into good jobs,” she said.
(By Laurie Monsebraaten)