Feb 2, 2009

Low income leads to poorer mental health


Statistics Canada recently published an interesting study on the relationship between low income and poor mental health. The paper, titled “Income and Psychological Distress: the Role of the Social Environment,” provides yet another reason for us to invest in a bold poverty-reduction plan.

A large body of research has focused on the poorer physical health of individuals with low income, and important differences in the mental health of these groups can also be observed. Much of this research, however, has been cross-sectional, making it difficult to determine whether low income or poor mental health comes first.


This study demonstrates that lower income is associated with a higher risk of becoming distressed, but that this risk is partially accounted for by the higher prevalence of stressors in the lives of lower-income individuals.

In other words, low income can and does cause poorer mental health, but this is not entirely driven by material deprivation (as their definition of low income is the fairly generous 1.5 the LICO for the particular household). Two things come to mind.

1. Poverty can exert high costs on our economy through reduced or lost productivity of those who experience psychological distress as a result of their low income (and this after we account for the enormous human cost to the affected individuals and their families).

2. The evidence shows that poor overall mental health of low-income individuals is rooted in the negative social environment to which they are exposed, including the neighbourhoods they live in and the organization of their workplace. Therefore, reducing the human costs of poverty would require more than just supplementing people’s cash income. We need to ensure that important community services are in place to improve the social environment in which low income households live and work.

Which is exactly what we recommend in our poverty-reduction plan.

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