A new study has found that food insecurity among Canada’s seniors is cut in half once they turn 65 and Canada’s Old Age Security (OAS) and Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) programs kick in. The results indicate how important a guaranteed income -even the relatively small one provided by OAS and GIS- can be in reducing poverty, say the study’s authors.
“This study demonstrates that even small amounts of guaranteed annual income can have a potentially important impact on poverty,” says study co-author Dr. Daniel Dutton of the University of Lethbridge’s Prentice Institute for Global Population and Economy.
In Canada, poverty is a significant social problem. Approximately 12.9 per cent of Canadians or 4.3 million people live on incomes below the poverty threshold, according to a 2013 Statistics Canada report. And compared with other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations, Canada’s poverty rate is higher than average, even though its national income levels are within the top tier for OECD countries.
For seniors, however, Canada seems to be doing something right, as less than six per cent of Canadians over the age of 65 currently live on incomes below the poverty line, giving Canada one of the lowest elderly poverty rates among OECD nations.
A big reason for this is the income floor provided by OAS and GIS, which together give low-income seniors a minimum non-taxable yearly income of $15,949.68 (by 2015 numbers).
But how effective are the federal guaranteed income programs for seniors in alleviating real poverty? To find out, researchers at the University of Calgary and the University of Lethbridge looked at seven years of data from the Canadian Community Health Survey and focused on food insecurity for seniors aged 55 to 74 from low-income, single-person households (those making less than $20,000 per year).
Strongly associated with instances of poverty, food insecurity is described as having insufficient access to affordable and nutritious food. About four million Canadians face food insecurity problems, with a disproportionate amount of them living in Indigenous communities.
The researchers found that the prevalence of food insecurity for low-income seniors under the age of 65 was around 43 per cent, but once federal programs kicked in at age 65, that number dropped to as low as 16 per cent. The result was the same regardless of the senior’s sex, income level or home ownership, which shows the success of OAS and GIS in staving off poverty, says Dutton.
“Remember, the amount of money they receive is not a lot by any standard, it certainly isn’t making them rich by any means, but what it is doing is giving them a measure of stability,” says Dutton. “These people are now no longer unsure of what their future holds in terms of supplemented income from the government and that’s very important.”
The results raise the question of the arbitrariness of having OAS and GIS start at 65, rather than sometime earlier. If the programs are successful in cutting down food insecurity and poverty – both of which are known to have significant economic and health impacts – then why not start them earlier, says Dutton. “Currently, age 65 is the magic number for some reason. The question we ask ourselves, why age 65, why not at 63? What is it about 65 that makes these people more deserving of Old Age Security?”