The Issue is a series of articles on Healthy Community issues and topics, written by BC Healthy Communities Staff.
What is the issue?
Why is it important?
Healthy Communities foster health by—among other things—making sure that the environments within them are supportive of health. Though we often think of physical environments such as Healthy Built Environments and Healthy Natural Environments, the environments within communities that impact our health can also be social, political, and especially economic.
When we think about what determines our health, we often fall back on behaviours such as eating fruits and vegetables, and maintaining an exercise routine. While these factors, as well as genetics, do play some role in our health, research indicates that much of our health is actually determined by social and structural factors, called determinants of health. One of the most prominent of these is income/poverty—in other words, our economic environment. Income level has been shown to affect health outcomes across the population to a much higher degree than health behaviours such as smoking or maintaining a certain body weight.
Healthy economic environments address this income/poverty determinant by ensuring “work for everyone capable of working, where workers are treated as assets and are paid a living wage, where there is equal economic opportunity for all, where those who can’t work are supported, and where money doesn’t buy political power or immunity from the law.” Implementation of a living wage, which reflects the actual cost of living in a given community, can also benefit the local economy through increased discretionary spending, as well as reduced staff turnover and increased productivity.
As part of a healthy economic environment, healthy work environments support community health and well-being by offering safe and humane places for people to work, where expectations and compensation are reasonable and fair. Workers who are protected by safety precautions, anti-harassment and bullying policies, and fair wage legislation are healthy individuals who can actively participate in creating healthy economies and communities.
What does this look like through an equity lens?
When we examine issues through an equity lens, we consider: who benefits? who does not benefit, or is in fact harmed? Over the last 40 years, average hourly wages in Canada have not significantly grown when adjusted for inflation. However, what’s hidden in this statistic is that the richest group of Canadians have enjoyed an increased share of total national income over this time, while the poorest and middle-income groups have lost ground. What’s more, certain groups of Canadians disproportionately experience low income, including new Canadians, women and single parents, racialized folks including Indigenous people, and people living with disabilities. As mentioned above, the health impacts of low income can be severe—in Montréal, for example, there is an 11-year gap in life expectancy for men in the poorest neighbourhoods compared to the wealthiest neighbourhoods.
What does this mean for local governments?
The downstream effects of poverty, income inequality, and unsafe working conditions can present a strain on public services including policing, housing programs and social services. Using the five pillars of Healthy Communities, local governments can take action towards healthier economic environments in their community. Here are just a few ideas:
- Community/Citizen Engagement: Listen to the “context experts” in your community—those with lived experience of being negatively impacted by the social determinants of health—and use their valuable input to create a solution. In developing their unique Downtown Eastside Community Economic Development Strategy, Vancouver consulted with a group including residents, businesses, organizations, networks, associations and community organizing initiatives from the area.
- Multi-Sectoral Collaboration: Engage in cross-sector collaboration to support or acknowledge local businesses upholding good employment practices. The CRD offers workplace wellness programs for small-to-mid-sized businesses who would not otherwise have the capacity to implement these types of health benefit programs for their employees.
- Political Commitment: Signal a commitment to reducing income inequality and poverty by implementing a living wage for local government staff. The communities of New Westminster, Huu-ay-aht, Central Saanich, Port Coquitlam, Pitt Meadows, Quesnel and Vancouver are all Living Wage Employers.
- Healthy Public Policy: Create or uphold policies that incentivize good employment and economic practices. Cumberland’s Social Procurement Framework, for example, obliges purchasers to consider, among other things, whether the purchase can be leveraged to improve the economic well-being of Cumberland, including outreach to engage equity-seeking businesses.
- Asset-Based Community Development: Leverage existing grant programs to highlight, support and celebrate businesses in your community who are leading by example in terms of wages and working conditions. Northern Development Initiative Trust, one of multiple regional economic trusts in B.C., offers a variety of business development supports, including LOVE Northern BC, a program that offers marketing support to help independent businesses strengthen their competitiveness and keep more dollars in the local economy.
Where can I go to learn more?
To hear more about how your community can support health through a strong, fair and equitable economy, get in touch with BC Healthy Communities, sign up for our newsletter, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
More about the social determinants of health:
- Dalla Lana School of Public Health, Introduction to Social Determinants of Health
- University of Wisconsin Public Health Institute, County Health Rankings Model
More about income inequality and public health:
- National Collaborating Centre for the Determinants of Health: Income Inequality Resources
- Columbia Institute: Municipal Wage 101
- Policy Alternatives: Living Wage as a Human Right
- The Impact of Living Wage Policy for the City of Calgary – Review of Literature
Johanna Henderson is BC Healthy Communities’ Communications Manager.