Financial strain is bad for our health, says new Canada Research Chair

Photo by Marcelo Leal

High-interest rates, grocery price inflation and the shortage of affordable housing are all making headlines in 2024 as top concerns for Canadians, and for good reason: One-third of Canadians report they live in households that are experiencing financial difficulties, according to Statistics Canada.

While financial insecurity puts a strain on Canadians’ bank accounts, it also amounts to a poorly understood public health challenge with both short- and long-term effects on individuals, says Candace Nykiforuk, professor and scientific director of the Centre for Healthy Communities in the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health.

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted Nykiforuk to start a project examining the impact of financial strain on Canadians’ physical and mental health, and now she has received a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair appointment to continue that work. The Canada Research Chair in Community Environments and Public Policy for Well-Being comes with $1.4 million over seven years in funding for her research program, with a possibility to renew for a further seven years.

Financial strain can affect mental and physical health, and also has impacts on the health of our economy, says Nykiforuk.

“We know that when children experience financial stress, they grow up to have much higher rates of long-term disability and depression and anxiety,” she says. “These are costs borne by the health-care system and the common economy, because a workforce with poor health is not as reliable as one with good health. These costs will come back into the system as health-care costs or justice costs or social security costs.”

The post-pandemic period offers a chance to learn lessons from COVID-19 and “build back better” by alleviating financial strain on a broad, systemic level, Nykiforuk says.

“It is time for governments and organizations, individually and in partnership, to address the structural causes of financial strain and poor financial well-being,” she says. “This means moving away from band-aid, individual-focused solutions to focus on broader population-level strategies.”

Nykiforuk clarifies that her focus is not only on the 7.4 per cent of Canadians who live below the poverty line, but also on a much larger group who feel financially insecure.

“Poverty is the most acute presentation — it’s like the emergency room of financial strain — and there’s a lot of attention and services paid to that group of people, appropriately and understandably,” she says. “But there’s also a much larger and growing group of people who are not facing poverty but are not financially secure.”

She points to Statistics Canada numbers from 2022, which show that 42 per cent of Canadians felt finances controlled their lives, 49 per cent reported taking on increased debt and 31 per cent fell short of money for daily expenses by month’s end.

Nykiforuk’s research shows that financial strain can affect you no matter what your income and is shaped by life events such as losing a job or having a baby. People with intersecting systemic disadvantages, such as low-income single mothers or racialized youth, face more sociocultural, economic and political factors that limit their ability to control and make financial decisions.

Nykiforuk prescribes preventative programs such as guaranteed basic income, better access to high-quality affordable housing, quality education, employment security, and coordinated benefits and services as some of the best solutions to these challenges.

“Those are really everybody’s business, not just public health,” she says. “We need intersectoral action, where public health has a chance to work with others in meaningful ways to address this issue.”

In March 2022, Nykiforuk’s group published its Action-Oriented Public Health Framework on Financial Wellbeing & Financial Strain along with the Guidebook of Strategies and Indicators for Action on Financial Wellbeing & Financial Strain.

The next step is to make the information available to as many policy-makers as possible. Nykiforuk has just received a new knowledge mobilization grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and has partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Association, the National Collaborating Centre for Methods and Tools, United Way, Prosper Canada, the National Collaborating Centre for Healthy Public Policy and Alberta Health Services to create an interactive website and then track implementation.

Her team will also survey policy-makers and the general public about their knowledge and attitudes about how to improve overall financial well-being for Canadians.

“We want to raise some excitement in the advocacy world about the disconnect between what people want and what policies are getting put in place,” she explains.

Nykiforuk sees signs of progress as some municipalities, such as Edmonton, are already taking into account their populations’ financial well-being as they make decisions. The City of Edmonton dashboard shares financial well-being data such as the gaps between the richest and poorest Edmontonians, the number of affordable housing units available, transit use and the number of people living in supportive housing.

Nykiforuk’s team has also recently published two new research papers — one that proposes a shared glossary of concepts about financial well-being and a map showing how they intersect, and another comparing how COVID-19 income supports affected financial well-being in Australia and Canada. Nykiforuk’s co-authors include Ana Paula Belon, senior research associate with the Centre for Healthy Communities, and Lisa K. Allen Scott of Alberta Health Services.

Nykiforuk is a member of the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute. Her research program is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.