Income and Women's Health

Text Size: Normal / Medium / Large
Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

How does income affect women's health?

People with higher incomes tend to enjoy better health and access to better health care. People with lower incomes tend to have shorter lives and more health problems. Unfortunately, the rate of poverty in Canada is increasing, and more women than men are poor.

Income affects every aspect of our lives, from where we live to what we eat, from what we wear to how we get where we are going. Lack of income means doing everything the hard way: hauling groceries or laundry on the bus, using pay phones instead of having a phone at home, reading newspapers at the library. Health hazards for people with low incomes include:

  • poor housing, with mould, poor air quality, inadequate heat or hot water etc.;
  • inadequate clothing for cold weather;
  • restricted access to supermarkets or sources of nutritious, cheap food such as fresh fruits or vegetables or fresh milk;
  • restricted access to non-insured health care such as medications;
  • restricted access to communication (such as phone or Internet);
  • restricted access to education leading to low health literacy, fewer job prospects, etc.;
  • social isolation;
  • few resources with which to handle crises, e.g. time, knowledge, access to professionals etc.; and

increased levels of stress due to less leisure time and greater financial pressures.

Which women are poor?

More women than men live in poverty, due to a variety of reasons beyond women's control.

Some of the facts are:

  • Overall, one in every five women is poor.
  • For women on their own, the poverty rates are higher. More than half of single mothers, and half of women older than 65 who live alone, are poor.
  • One in ten married couples is poor. (National Council of Welfare, Poverty Profile 1996)
  • If women in those couples dropped out of the workforce, and only one partner earned an income, the number of poor would rise to one couple in four.

Some groups of women are especially vulnerable to poverty. In Manitoba, one study (Women, Income and Health in Manitoba) found:

  • More than a quarter (27 percent) of women with disabilities were poor.
  • Nearly 43 percent of Aboriginal women living off reserve were poor, compared to 35 percent of Aboriginal men or 20.3 percent of non-Aboriginal women and 16.4 percent of non-Aboriginal men.
  • Three in ten (32 percent) visible minority women were poor, although they were more likely than other women to be employed full time.

There has been little research on lesbians and poverty, although one Winnipeg study found that 14 percent of gay men over 65 reported incomes below the poverty line, compared with 42 percent of lesbian seniors. (Virginia McKee, “Seniors survey identifies double discrimination for senior lesbians,” Herizons, Spring 1999, p. 9.)

What makes women poorer than men?

The causes of women's poverty are complex and involve sexist and racist polices and attitudes toward women and the work women do. Major reasons for women's poverty include:

  • Women earn less than men. Jobs held mainly by women tend to be lower-paid or part time jobs. Women's pre-tax incomes all sources is, on average, only 62 percent of what men earn, according to 2001 Census data. Two-thirds of minimum wage workers, and two-thirds of part time workers are women. As well, women's wages are lower than men's wages in practically every occupation.
  • Women are still very much segregated in lower paid jobs such as childcare, secretarial work, call centres, and the textile industry.
  • Much of women's work is unpaid. Women do more than 80 percent of the unpaid caregiving in Canada.
  • Women live longer than men. In Canada, half of women aged 65 and older who live alone are poor because they have no pension from employment.
  • Single parent families are mostly headed by women, and the income of single parent families has decreased more than the income of the average family income.
  • It takes money to make money, and women tend to lack the resources to get out of poverty, such as capital, land, and borrowing opportunities.
  • More women lack access to education. While more women are graduating from university in Canada, tuition increases make education increasingly difficult to access. As well, women tend to receive fewer training hours in educational programs.
  • Racism is a major cause of poverty. A 2003 study “If Low-Income Women of Colour Counted in Toronto” shows that racism is a strong factor in the poverty of women of colour for reasons that include discrimination by employers and landlords, lack of affordable housing, and lack of access to affordable high-quality childcare.

How does poverty undermine health?

Health Canada recognizes income and social status as one of twelve key determinants of health. Each determinant interacts with each of the others. For example, women who have low incomes and also are members of racialized groups, are more vulnerable to violence. Aboriginal women tend to have low incomes and low levels of education, as well as shorter life expectancies than non-Aboriginal women.

Income affects health at all ages, from before birth through the senior years. Here are a few examples of how this occurs:

  • Maternal nutrition and security, not to mention access to pre-natal care, affect the foetus in the womb.
  • Housing location affects the young child's access to education and/or leisure resources.
  • Secure employment lessens stress on parents and therefore on children.
  • Pension income determines whether seniors can get adequate nutrition, access to activities that keep them vital, dental care, and prescription or other drugs.
  • Malnourished children have diminished capacities to learn both socially and academically.
  • Income helps determine the power of an individual in her relationships, particularly in intimate relationships.
  • Women without financial resources of their own are especially vulnerable to violence at the hands of their partners. Violence creates very serious health problems for battered or assaulted women. Although there is violence against women across all cultural, racial and religious groups, and income levels, women living in poverty are especially limited in their choices. It is hard for women to leave abusive relationships if they don't have any money.
  • Money is an essential tool for taking charge of your own life. People with low incomes usually have little access to resources. When bad luck strikes, they don't have the tools to make things right. This undermines their sense of self-worth, and can lead to hopelessness and depression. Small wonder, then, that poverty is associated with mental illness–although sometimes it is hard to say which comes first.

What can be done to eliminate poverty and improve women's health?

Eliminating poverty is an extremely ambitious goal. Yet there is evidence that improving health outcomes for poor people also improves health outcomes for everybody else in the community.

Women's groups have been lobbying for decades to achieve some basic steps in eliminating poverty among women, including:

  • employment equity–giving women, Aboriginal people and members of visible minority groups access to education and higher paid jobs;
  • pay equity–higher wages for jobs held mainly by women;
  • creating refundable caregiver tax credit - tangible recognition for all the unpaid caregiving work that women do;
  • social housing policies, to ensure that all families have access to affordable, quality housing;
  • a national childcare system, so that all mothers and parents can choose their paid work, and so that all children have early childhood enrichment;
  • maintaining universal healthcare; and
  • a home health care system with adequate funding and community-based resources.

Studies in developing countries prove that when women's financial status improves, the whole community benefits. Can we really afford to continue to let women fall into poverty?