Poverty Is Hazardous to Women's Health - And We Can Do Something About It

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Governments planning health care reform need to include the recommendations of a new study from the Women’s Health Clinic in Winnipeg. The study, called Women, Income and Health in Manitoba, shows that while women living in poverty may get sick and die sooner, Canada’s income inequality means every income group is vulnerable to having poorer health and shorter lifespans.

"We want Manitobans to be aware of how low income not only affects the health of women living in poverty, but every income group up the economic ladder," says Barbara Wiktorowicz, the WHC’s Executive Director. "We want them to know there are things that we can do now to change this, so we’re releasing this study now because it’s critical to the current debate. Preserving and enhancing medicare is a women’s issue, but it affects everyone."

The study’s launch in February, which received considerable media attention, is the first stage of a Manitoba-wide "Poverty is Hazardous to Women’s Health" campaign. WHC wants to raise awareness in the general population and among policy-makers that "Reducing poverty improves health for everyone. Together we can do it."

Government and health researchers have known about the relationship between income and health for some time. However, research across developed nations shows that it is not just poverty that makes people sick; inequality is bad for everyone’s health. In societies with greater inequality, even the wealthiest get sick and die sooner.

In Manitoba, as in the rest of Canada, poverty discriminates, striking women substantially more frequently and more severely than men. It hits women with disabilities and women of colour even harder, and Aboriginal women hardest of all. Aboriginal women have poorer health than Aboriginal men or any other Canadian women. The study makes a special effort to include the views, and needs, of Aboriginal women.

The Women’s Health Clinic wants to get the public involved in making change. Once it is understood that medical care is less important in ensuring the health of the entire population than economic security, social support and a more equitable distribution of wealth, the public can work with—or push— policy makers to take new approaches.

One priority is redesigning health care services to meet the needs of lowincome women, and to start by including the women in planning and evaluation. A wider goal of the awareness campaign, however, is to help decision makers, both inside and beyond the health care sector, to consider the health consequences of their decisions and how these can assist low-income women’s health.

Policy changes outside the health sector can be as, or more, important than changes within. Municipal politicians, for instance, should consider the impact on women’s health when setting public recreation fees and transit fares. The CRTC should consider how lack of phone service can lead to social isolation and contribute to ill health when setting local phone rates.

The campaign lists a number of ‘Ideas for Action’, including: raising the minimum wage, increasing social assistance rates, broadening eligibility for Employment Insurance, increasing the number of subsidized child care spaces, providing non-insured health benefits such as dental care and prescription drugs to all those living in poverty, and others.

Download the report Poverty is Hazardous to Women's Health here.