COLUMN: Social determinants that affect Nelson

'Over time, a variety of punitive clawbacks were introduced further weakening the social safety net.'

Nelson’s “Path to 2040 Sustainability Strategy” envisions a safe, connected place for people of all ages and income levels and a local economy that offers meaningful employment supporting healthy, affordable lifestyles.

One means to consider progress in this regard is a ‘social determinants of health’ model that provides a more nuanced assessment of population health and well-being than is evident from GNP alone.

The social determinants model considers how income and wealth is distributed in society, whether people are employed or otherwise productively engaged, people’s living and working conditions, the availability of social services, and access to quality education, food, housing, leisure and other factors.

By these measures, improvements to the health and well-being of Canadians slowed from 1992-2008 and since then have been in decline.

How people fare in relation to social determinants is largely a result of government policy, which has changed direction over the last 15 years.

In 1992, changes to BC’s unemployment insurance program reduced the proportion of people eligible for support from 85 per cent of applicants to only 35 per cent, forcing many people to seek social assistance.

At the same time, federal standards for social assistance were removed, leading BC to cut assistance rates and tighten eligibility.

Over time, a variety of punitive clawbacks were introduced further weakening the social safety net.

Sales tax credits were revamped such that gains in one area were outweighed by cuts in others in a process similar to that affecting transit pass holders on disability benefits today.

Significantly, the federal government ended its involvement in affordable housing resulting in a 46 per cent loss of investment despite rising demand from a population economically stressed by recession.

Today, minimum wage rates leave full-time workers earning below low income cut-offs in an environment where the proportion of new jobs has shifted from high-paying full-time positions to low-paying, often part-time service sector jobs.

The results of these and other policy shifts are visible on the streets and in the food banks of Nelson and elsewhere in BC and across Canada today. The United Nations has referred to Canada’s housing situation as a crisis and this is clearly evident in Nelson where rents are rising and vacancy rates are zero per cent.

In 2011, 25 per cent of Nelson’s population lived below the government’s low income cut-off, while 30 per cent of Nelson’s low-income residents are children.

This is worse than the provincial child poverty rate, which is the worst in Canada despite BC boasting one of the highest economic growth rates in the country. By many measures, the productive growth of our economy is not being used to enhance the well-being of community.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Prior to the policy shifts of recent decades, Canada’s health outcomes were outstanding. As one of many possible examples, in 1992, Canada had the second lowest infant mortality rate in the world. Today Canada’s infant mortality rate is twice what it was a mere 15 years ago.

The expectation, as evidenced by extensive downloading of federal and provincial responsibilities, is that municipal governments will step up to ensure the social health and well-being of residents. Unfortunately, the resources needed to effectively do so have not been downloaded to a proportionate extent.

If Nelson is to fully achieve the goals outlined in the Path to 2040 strategy, it is imperative that each of us become better informed about the policy decisions that define our society and that ultimately impact our community’s health and well-being.

The upcoming provincial election provides renewed opportunity for our voices to be heard.

Valerie Warmington shares this space with her fellow city councillors.

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