We Need Drastic Increases in Social Assistance Rates

They say that money cannot buy happiness. Scrooge learned this lesson in Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol,” where ghostly visitors show him that the poor Cratchett family shares love, warmth and happiness at Christmas, while Scrooge’s greed leaves him alone.

It’s a great story, and a good message: focusing on money as an indicator of success, we are likely to be unhappy. However, that doesn’t mean that money doesn’t play a role in our happiness and overall well-being.

Civil rights activist Samuel L. Younge Jr. once said: “They say money doesn't buy happiness. Well, neither does poverty.” On this point, he was half-right: poverty certainly doesn’t buy happiness, but today’s research reveals that income is in fact the most impactful determinant of health.

For some time, social scientists have shown that well-being rises with income, but only up to a certain point. A well-known 2010 study by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton found that people experienced an improvement in their emotional well-being up to an annual income of $75,000, but not after.

These findings seemingly reinforced the “money can’t buy happiness” adage. However, a more recent 2021 study casts doubt on this plateau. Research led by Matthew A. Killingsworth showed that people’s well-being increased with income, and that “there was no evidence for an experienced well-being plateau above $75,000.” Put simply, new research shows the more money you make, the more likely you are to experience well-being and satisfaction in life, no matter how high that income rises.

This seems obvious in today’s world. The global COVID-19 pandemic accelerated many negative trends, including further growth in income inequality. The rapidly rising cost of living, particularly food and housing, has made daily life more of a challenge for more of the population. This means working more to make ends meet, increased stress, food insecurity and more.

It’s no wonder, then, that our hospitals are under enormous strain and our mental health wait lists are flooded, while our children and youth are in crisis. People’s financial positions have shifted drastically these past few years and we are seeing the results. Income inequality makes our community sicker. We need to act because the evidence is clear; reducing income inequality would improve our mental health wait lists, reduce pressure on the justice system, improve educational outcomes and boost just about any indicator of health and well-being.

So we must then ask why social assistance rates in Ontario have languished for decades. While rent in Cambridge has spiked to an average of $1,678 and $2,396 for a one- and two-bedroom apartment, respectively, a single person on Ontario Works receives $733 a month, and a person on ODSP receives $1,228. This math is a recipe for poorer health outcomes.

The recent labour dispute between CUPE and the province has elevated the conversation about what income is needed to get by in this economy. The numbers and the policy impacts are clear: we need drastic increases in social assistance rates. The happiness and well-being of our neighbours depends on it.

Cameron Dearlove is the executive director of Porchlight Counselling and Addiction Services, serving Cambridge and North Dumfries since 1940.