Low-income Canadians are at a disproportionate risk of poor health. Living in poverty puts people at higher risk of disease, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and mental illness.
A report looking at data from 1971 to 1996 estimated that 24 per cent of all potential years of life lost in Canada were attributable directly to poverty, second only to cancer (31 per cent), and greater than for cardiovascular disease (18 per cent).
We know that poverty is bad for a child’s health and that it is responsible for higher rates of infant mortality and underweight newborns. As they grow, these children are more likely to experience growth and developmental difficulties, mental illness, challenges in school and higher rates of injury and illness.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, around 15 per cent of the population is living on low income, according to the Newfoundland and Labrador Market Basket Measure, which reflects the costs of living at a regional and community level.
We know that poverty is bad for health and that many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are living in poverty. So, how does a tax return help? Well, without filing taxes, you can’t access income security benefits and government programs designed to help those in need. For Canadians and newcomers who made little or no money this year, filing a tax return will provide benefits, rather than the bill that many expect.
In the 2015 tax year, an agency in Manitoba helped 9,000 low-income families secure an additional $21 million in child benefits and tax rebates just by filing their taxes.
It is not just about getting more money; filing taxes allows some low-income people to access the Newfoundland and Labrador Prescription Drug Program. For people with disabilities, it may help with access to extra tax credits and savings programs.
As health-care professionals, we encourage everyone to take the following steps:
1. File a tax return. There are volunteer tax clinics set up around Newfoundland and Labrador. Visit the CRA website and click on Volunteer Income Tax Program to find a clinic. www.cra-arc.gc.ca
2. Use the Government of Canada Benefits Finder. This online tool asks for information such as income, children, disability and housing, and provides details about government benefits and programs that may be available. http://www.canadabenefits.gc.ca
3. Go for a checkup. It is important for everyone to stay on top of their health, but those with a low income have a greater risk of poor health and tend to see physicians less. Physicians can help with access to government programs. For example, people with certain chronic health problems like diabetes may be eligible for the Special Diet Allowance, and those with disabilities might eligible for the Disability Tax Credit. Access to these programs may require a physician to write a letter or fill out a form.
We know this is not the full solution. It is going to take broader policy change to eliminate poverty and its negative health impacts. However, filing taxes is a step everyone can take to potentially improve their fiscal health and hopefully, as a result, their physical health.
Melanie van Soeren, family medicine resident, Memorial University
Priscilla Corcoran Mooney, social worker in rural Avalon