Opportunities Lost: Connecting the Dots Between the Economy and Our Health

By Ann Douglas

Back in 2006, when I first started to become concerned about how Canada was changing, I started reading everything I could about politics and social policy.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that there was a huge and growing gap between what we should be doing and what our country’s leaders were choosing to do.

I found this incredibly frustrating.

And I still react with frustration each time I read a newspaper headline that reminds me how far we have journeyed down the wrong path — and how much further in the distance the Canada I remember from my growing up years has receded.

I am constantly seeking out sources that confirm that I’m not the only who cares passionately about Canada and where it is headed—and who wants this country to get back on track. The Canadian Index of Wellbeing is one of my favourite such sources. As opposed to merely limiting itself to measures of economic activity, the index includes measures of wellbeing that indicate the extent to which a community is thriving: community vitality, democratic engagement, healthy populations, leisure and community, living standards, and time use. As the CIW noted in its 2012 report: “Certainly economic growth is laudable. But what does it mean to a society if it comes at the expense of less free time, fewer social connections, lower personal satisfaction, and a more stressful life.”

The CIW also has something fascinating to tell us about the impact of the economy on our overall wellbeing—something that is the exact opposite to what we have come to expect, given our governments’ emphasis on the economy above all else: “The trends in the CIW tell us when the economy improves, Canadians reap comparatively little benefit, but when the economy stumbles, Canadians take the fall.”

The World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health has likewise connected the dots between government economic policy, an abundance of precarious work, and our overall health and well-being as a society. In its 2008 report “Closing the gap in a generation: Health equity through action on the social determinants of health. Final report of the Commission on Social Determinants of Health,” the Commission wrote:

“The increasing power of large transnational corporations and international institutions to determine the labour policy agenda has led to a disempowerment of workers, unions, and those seeking work and a growth in health-damaging working arrangements and conditions. In high income countries, there has been a growth in job insecurity and precarious employment arrangements (such as informal work, temporary work, part-time work, and piecework), job losses, and a weakening of regulatory protections….Evidence indicates that mortality is significantly higher among temporary workers compared to permanent workers. Poor mental health outcomes are associated with precarious employment (e.g. informal work, non-fixed term temporary contracts, and part-time work). Workers who perceive work insecurity experience significant adverse effects on their physical and mental health.”

In its 2012 report, the CIW stresses the urgency of addressing the problem of income inequality (which has been increasing in Canada over the past 20 years.

“Income inequality leads to larger gaps between the rich and the poor on their educational attainment, their health outcomes, and their access to leisure and cultural opportunities. In the long run, a larger divide between income earners at the top and the bottom prompts the very wealthy to question contributions to public programmes on which our communities depend – in essence, to question the public good. Such a response would not only be very destructive to our society and long-term prosperity, but it diminishes our sense of fairness.”

So what can you do to promote an agenda of fairness?

  • Connect with organizations that are committed to promoting this same value: The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, The Broadbent Institute, and The Caledon Institute of Social Policy are three such organizations.
  • Support political candidates who understand that income inequality damages communities and individuals; and who are committed to policies that promote the common good.
  • Read books that demystify the economy. I recommend 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang and Economics for Everyone: A Short Guide to the Economics of Capitalism by Jim Stanford.
  • Subscribe to progressive magazines, like This Magazine.
  • Be prepared to challenge the status quo. As the World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health noted: Any serious effort to reduce health inequities will involve changing the distribution of power within society and global regions, empowering individuals and groups to represent strongly and effectively their needs and interests and, in so doing, to challenge and change the unfair and steeply graded distribution of social resources (the conditions for health) to which all, as citizens, have claims and rights.”
  • Share these ideas with your friends. It’s the most powerful way to begin to turn the tide and to create the Canada we want.

Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about pregnancy and parenting, including The Mother of All Pregnancy Books. She writes about parenting, health, and social justice for a number of Canadian magazines. Her websites are www.anndouglas.ca and www.having-a-baby.com.

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