Improved diet would lower health costs

TORONTO — A guaranteed basic income for all Canadians could reduce hunger and food insecurity, but it could also prove to be an expensive fix.


“Basic income sounds like a silver bullet, but I don’t think it’s a silver bullet for poverty,” Craig Alexander, chief economist with the Conference Board of Canada, said Nov. 28 at the Canadian Food and Drink Summit, which the board organized in Toronto.


“The cause of poverty extends far beyond the money.”


He said services to address physical and mental disabilities and other needs would still be required, even if governments were to put a plan in place guaranteeing a higher base income for individuals.


It could also prove to be a disincentive to work and, depending on the design, complex and expensive to administer.


Alexander said a simpler way to address food insecurity may be to restructure the taxation system, as proposed by Kevin Milligan of the C.D. Howe Institute. That would mean making non-refundable tax refunds refundable for a greater number of low-income families.


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Despite his reservations, Alexander said he supports the idea.


Valerie Tarasuk of the University of Toronto’s nutritional sciences department said low incomes are a barrier for families looking to move themselves out of poverty. 


Rather than being a disincentive, a sustainable income provides individuals and families with a launching point from which they can improve their fortunes.


In addition, the current system comes with a high cost. 


Tarasuk said low income families and individuals often reduce their living expenses by buying food that lacks proper nutrition.


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Tarasuk said her research, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, shows that average health care costs are $1,600 a year for food secure Canadians, $2,160 for those who are marginally food insecure, $2,800 for those who are moderately insecure and nearly $4,000 for those in severe situations.


Tarasuk said food insecurity affects a broad spectrum of Canadians. The working poor, First Nations people and people who rent accommodations are more likely to be food insecure. 


“We’re talking about 12.6 percent of households that were food insecure in 2007, according to Statistics Canada,” she said. “That’s about four million people, and we know that it’s underestimated.”


Senator Art Eggleton agreed that reduced health-care spending would offset the costs of implementing a basic income system.


About one in seven children in Canada arrive to school hungry, he added.


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“How shameful this is in a country that is a G7 nation and which is as rich as ours,” he said. “The current system is failing.… It’s time to end this Band-Aid approach. It’s time to go in a new direction.”