FARE-talk is to provide an enduring conversation about contemporary topics relevant to food, agricultural, and resource economics.
Brady Deaton: Welcome to FARE Talk where we set out to provide enduring discussions on contemporary topics relevant to our economy with particular emphasis on food, agriculture and the environment. My name is Brady Deaton Junior of the Department of Food, Agriculture and Resource Economics at the University of Guelph. I will be your host. [music ends] In today's podcast I will be discussing household food insecurity in Canada with Dr. Valerie Tarasuk of the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto. She and her colleagues have been doing cutting-edge research on food insecurity in Canada. Valerie welcome to FARE Talk.
Valerie Tarasuk: Thank you I’m happy to be here.
Brady: In your research on food security in Canada what is generally meant by the term food insecurity? And give us just a starting point, idea of how prevalent it is.
[00:57] Valerie: What we mean by that term is inadequate or insecure access to food because of financial constraints so it's very, very specific to problems of affording enough food, you know putting food on the table for yourself and your family and the root of the problem being financial constraint. We've been measuring this problem in Canada for years but in 2005 we adopted the Household Food Security Survey Module that's been used for many, many more years in the United States to monitor food insecurity in that country. So the most recent national data we have is from 2012 and in that year 12.6% of Canadian households reported some degree of food insecurity, and to translate that into perhaps a more common unit of measurement that translates into something over 4 million Canadians living in a household that was affected in some way by food insecurity.
[01:53] Brady: You mentioned that this survey has been conducted in the United States as well. Are we able to compare how Canada fares relative to United States?
Valerie: Yes and that's actually a really interesting thing to do because we’re using an identical survey module and in both countries this problem is monitored on a population representative survey. Although we code the module differently in Canada and the United States and we apply slightly different labels, but in our research program we apply the USDA’s thresholds in order to categorize food insecurity so that we’ve got perfectly comparable numbers and what we can see is that Canada is somewhere between two and three times lower in its rate of food insecurity than the United States.
[02:36] Brady: What why is that? Do you have any thoughts?
Valerie: There was one study done when this common metric started being used in Canada. There was one study done actually by Mark Nord from Economic Research Services Division of the USDA and it is very interesting. I mean there probably needs to be more research in this area but what he found was, I mean part of it is that our populations are different, but another part of it is that amongst particular population subgroups there appears to be higher rates. I think probably to put it in broad strokes overall in the United States I think there is a higher rate of poverty and food insecurity aligns quite closely with poverty so that’s part of it, but there are also worse and the subtle differences in terms of the relationship between food insecurity and whether a household had children or not, things like that. So it's an area where we need to do more to really figure out what's going on, but it looks like part of it is about the nature of the policies in this country and the nature of our economic circumstances.
[03:34] Brady: So the conversation we’re going to have in general about the methods of figuring out food insecurity are comparable to the United States. How does this metric that you've been using compare to measures of undernourishment and hunger that's used by the FAO? We’re part of the millennium development goals in terms of trying to reduce undernourishment in the developing world. Is this a different measure than that?
Valerie: Yes, yes it is and it is important to keep these things separate. We can't assume in an affluent country like Canada we can't assume that what we’re looking at when we look at food security is, you know frank undernourishment or malnutrition. When we look at the relationship between food insecurity and dietary intakes, or nutritional adequacy in Canada we can see definitely differences where people report struggles to put food on the table and less probability of having an adequate diet, but the differences are not anywhere near as stark as we would expect to see another in other places. So yeah it’s important to keep those things separate. Recently, I guess in April of this year, FAO produced a report that was an attempt to compare food insecurity rates across all kinds of countries using a simpler measure based in some ways on the 18 items that are used to monitor food insecurity in Canada and United States but much, much briefer, I think maybe 8 or 10 questions, and they administered the questions through, well it was administered by the Gallup Poll, so it was a telephone survey I think most higher-income countries and a sample of 1000 so accrued you know quick and dirty kind of measure but it's interesting there to see the differences and it’s exactly as you'd expect. Higher-income countries tend to have lower rates than lower-income countries do and then again interestingly we can see the distinction between Canada and the US with Canada coming in at a lower rate but some European countries coming even lower. It's interesting so it's the only example I know of where there's been an attempt to take the idea and move it systematically across the globe, but going back to your original question for sure we would want to distinguish between food insecurity as it’s measured in and understood in North America and these notions of undernutrition.
[05:48] Brady: So when we sort of are looking at sort of the world's developing populations roughly the prevalence is I think it's around 13% as well of the population is under nourished that wouldn’t be comparable [Valerie: Not at all] to what we’re going to talk about so we can make comparisons to the United States but the FAO measures we’re talking about something different. Are we talking about the key difference being that one is more of a subjective measure and the other is an attempt to kind of assess whether someone has enough calories to live an active and healthy life? What would be the best way of making the distinction between what we’re doing in North America and in the developing world?
[06:36] Valerie: I think that yes, in some ways there are apples and oranges, right? One absolutely is a subjective measure, it's a reflection on a household circumstance over a 12-month period. There is within the survey module there is an ability to strip out levels of deprivations so if someone would answer affirmatively to all 18 of the questions on this module I mean at the end of the day they would be telling us they had gone whole days without eating. If we had very many people with such extreme levels of deprivation we would expect to start to see associations between such extreme deprivation and the protein and calorie malnutrition, or undernutrition. But thankfully in our country we don't see that many people at that level of extreme deprivation, so part of what's happening with measures of undernutrition is they’re trapping a state that is an extreme level of deprivation that endures over a significant period of time and that's not what we’re getting here. We’re looking at a subjective assessment of the household circumstance over a 12-month window where very few members of our population are so extreme as to be reporting absolute food deprivation day after day after day.
[07:54] Brady: You mentioned this and I think this is important. Let's go through the nature of the survey and how it lends itself to gradations of food insecurity so when we've been talking so far about food insecurity we've been lumping and, correct me if I'm wrong, three groups three measures I guess that build on each other: marginal, moderate and severe. So maybe one way to do it is to just talk about what it would mean if someone was marginally food insecure and that's about 4% of the 13% that we’re talking about.
Valerie: So those are households where people only affirmed one item on the 18 and typically in this list of questions I mean the questions vary in severity from the most mild level being “do you ever worry about running out of food or have you in the last year ever worried about running out of food and not having money to buy more” on through to questions about compromises in the quality of food intake and then compromises in quantity. So someone who's, or a household that’s classified as marginally food insecure would have said yes to probably only one question and that question typically would have been that question about worrying. So they’re expressing some concern about their ability to make ends meet but they're not saying that they have systematically compromised the quality of their dietary intakes or those of their children because of a lack of food or money for food and they’re not telling us that they skip meals or gone without eating. So they’ve said enough to indicate that they are different from other Canadians and that they are worried about not being able to manage or they have been worried in a serious way about not being able to manage and that’s a very significant distinction but it's not at the level of them telling us that they’ve actually not been able to eat.
[09:47] Brady: And then as we move to say moderate they would be somebody who was both marginal but had answered a different type of question. Is that right?
Valerie: When we classify people as moderately food insecure, or households, I keep saying people, but the unit of measurement for this module is household, but when we classify households as moderately food insecure, we’re looking at households where the respondent has affirmed enough items for us to have reason to believe that there was some compromise in the quality of the dietary intakes of adults and or children in that household. So they’ve said the more things that people say yes to on these 18 questions the worse their household situation is. So, the moderate classification, people would have responded affirmatively to 2, 3, 4 or 5 questions across the adult and child scales that would've given us reason to believe that at minimum there were compromises in the quality of the intakes at some point in the year because of financial constraints.
[10:52] Brady: And then finally I guess that the severe category is evidence that someone actually forgave or gave up food.
Valerie: Yeah, yeah, yeah. The severe category is a very, very worrisome situation because those are people who have said yes to many of the questions on this module and the way the questions are organized there are several questions that are capturing quantitative compromises. So to give you an example, you know, people are asked, “Have you or other adults in your household ever skipped meals or cut the size of meals because you didn't have food or money for food? Have you ever gone hungry without eating? Have you ever lost weight in the past year because of a lack of food or money for food?” And then at its most extreme, “Have you gone whole days without eating?” And each time someone says yes to those questions, they’re asked how often. And so not in a very detailed way on these modules but you know is it almost every month or some months or like was it a fairly rare event or was it a problem that was pervasive throughout the year? And similar questions are asked of the children in the household, although it’s an adult who responds to those questions, but again asking, you know, “Have children in the household ever not eaten, or gone hungry without eating because the lack of food or money for food?” So by the time people are saying yes to those questions they're in very, very seriously compromised circumstances.
[12:19] Brady: And that severe category is about 2.6% of the population of the households, yeah?
Valerie: Yeah, it's been sitting fairly stably at that level for a few years and we have to hope it doesn’t ever get any bigger.
Brady: Now I should say for the people listening to this podcast, Valerie and her co-authors, and you mentioned this earlier I think, have been working on reports on this issue for some time and we’ll make a link to the reports that we’re talking about and pulling data from so you can sit back and just enjoy and we’ll make a link so you can get to the numbers. So if we can just kind of review it’s 4.1 about in the marginal category then if you combine marginal and moderate together are about 10% and then you add another 2% in severe and you get this close to 13% figure that we've been using. Is that about right?
Valerie: That’s right.
[13:22] Brady: So over time, what have you, in addition to kind of documenting the prevalence, what issues and characteristics are you finding are associated with food insecure households?
Valerie: Well we’ve done a lot of work to try to figure out whose got the problem and why they got it and so at a very kind of gross level we can say that food insecurity is more prevalent amongst households with low incomes, the lower the income the greater probability of food insecurity but it's not a one-to-one relationship so we can find households with fairly low incomes but still reporting food security and we can find households with what would seem like middle or higher incomes but reporting food insecurities, so that has caused us to take a lot longer look at what's going on. So the income is part of the story a big part of the story, it’s actually the single strongest predictor household income, but on top of that what we realize is that homeownership is very, very significantly associated with this problem so on the Canadian Community Health Survey where the food insecurity is monitored, there’s a very simple question about you know, do you own or rent the dwelling in which you live? And people who report that they are renting have a probability of food insecurity that is several times higher than those who are owning and when we do multivariate analysis where we’ve got income and homeownership in the models even after we to take into account income homeowners are at systematically lower risk and that associates with the fact that to be a homeowner is to be somebody with more wealth and even if you have a mortgage you’ve got equity so you're able to buffer changes in the household circumstances in a way that someone who is a renter isn't. So homeownership is another layer of evidence of vulnerability or protection. Another thing that turned out to be very interesting for us in addition to income and whether or not you're owning a home in which you live there are some very basic questions about the sources of household income and what we found is that households in which the main source of income is social assistance have an extremely high rate of food insecurity, I think nationally about two out of three households reliant on social assistance programs are food insecure, so that’s at one end of the continuum. At the other end of the continuum we find people reliant on pensions or seniors’ incomes and those people are at very low risk, much lower than the incomes of people who are in the workforce, which is… [Brady: What are your thoughts on that?] Well, part of our research program has been to really look very closely at those two ends of the spectrum and to speak first to the seniors, what we've got going on in Canada with seniors is that at the point that somebody turns 65 they without doing anything else except having that birthday are eligible for what is effectively a guaranteed annual income. At the point that someone turns 65 they will be eligible for old-age security and a guaranteed income supplement, they'll also have full drug coverage and they will enjoy discounts in many retail outlets if they live in the city like me in Toronto, they’ll have a discount on public transit. There's many, many ways in which both the private and public sector support seniors and that's a beautiful thing, right? There's a whole string of initiatives that have emerged from determination to reduce or to try to eliminate in fact poverty amongst seniors and we’re not there yet, but when we look at the effect of the guaranteed annual incomes of seniors in Canada, we can see that for someone who is a low income adult at the point that they turn 65 so a low income unattached adult at the point that they turn 65 the risk of food insecurity will drop in half. It's a tremendous statement on the power of the social protection program like our seniors’ pensions. Contrast that to the story of people on social assistance of the other extreme end of this continuum where maybe two thirds and in some provinces it would be in excess of 80% of people receiving social assistance are food insecure. I should just make the clarification for people that are unfamiliar with these programs that in Canada, old-age pensions are managed at a federal level so that is a federal thing although there are provincial programs layered onto it, but social assistance programs are programs that fall under provincial or territorial jurisdiction so we can see significant variation between provinces and territories in terms of vulnerability related to social assistance, but with the sole exception in Newfoundland and Labrador. Everywhere else that you look in the country more than half of those receiving social assistance benefits are food insecure and many of them, and this is a very worrisome finding, many of them are severely food insecure, so this is a serious level of deprivation.
[18:34] Brady: You mentioned that you are able to look at comparisons across Canada at the provincial level. Have you been able to pick up any differences in provincial policies that have an effect?
Valerie: Yes. The most marked one was a study from a doctoral student of mine, Rachel Loopstra, did looking at Newfoundland and Labrador and what triggered it when we started producing these annual reports on statistics on food insecurity, we started graphing provincial and territorial prevalence estimates and we realized that Newfoundland and Labrador’s rate of food insecurity had dropped markedly between 2007 and 2011 and that prompted us to do a whole lot more work. So what Rachel Loopstra was actually eventually able to figure out is that in 2006 that province introduced a very, very radical poverty reduction strategy and it was a strategy, it wasn’t designed with any explicit goal to reduce food insecurity, not at all, but the goal was to reduce both the breadth and the depth of poverty in the province and so a part of the strategy was to improve the circumstances of people on social assistance there. So they did all kinds of things; they raised the benefit levels, they indexed into inflation, which is practically unheard of in this country, they did other things to reduce the liquid asset exemption, sorry to increase the liquid asset exemption, and the earnings exemptions and other things so that basically over a period of five years as that policy rolled out what we saw is the material circumstances of people on social assistance in Newfoundland and Labrador improving markedly. What happened to food insecurity over that period? The rates dropped in half, so when we look at the 2012 data, which is the most recent data we have from Newfoundland and Labrador where's when we look at other provinces can see people who report their main source of income as social assistance having rates of food insecurity of 70, 80, 65 whatever percent in Newfoundland we’re sitting somewhere down around 40. So it shows that this problem is very, very sensitive to income-based interventions.
[20:52] Brady: Right. Does it suggest also that addressing food insecurity is similar if not exactly the same as addressing poverty, or are there distinctions that we should think about between the two? So would a poverty reduction policy be essentially similar to a policy to address food insecurity or are there important distinctions between those two approaches?
Valerie: Thank you. That is an excellent question. I think there are distinctions and it's partly about how poverty reduction strategies play out in this country. Often when a government, federal or provincial, announces a strategy to reduce poverty they start by defining poverty by some income threshold and then they introduce some measure to reduce the proportion of people or children or seniors whatever their target is to reduce the number that are below this income threshold, and depending on where that income threshold is set, I mean if you can imagine we can draw a line somewhere and wherever we draw the line really, there will be people very close to that line and they only maybe need five dollars to get over the line and so sometimes we've seen poverty reduction strategies that have very much focused on people close to whatever the line is. In Canada we don’t actually have a firm policy-centered definition of poverty so it's not uncommon for provincial governments to start a poverty reduction strategy by defining poverty for themselves for example, you know going out on a road trip to say “what do people mean by poverty?” And so there's a lot of different ways in which that threshold would get set and then there would be measures to move people over it but because these often are policy interventions that are announced in play out in the context of political elections and things, the thresholds can be quite high and the interventions can be quite small and very much focused on the people at the threshold so the reason the Newfoundland and Labrador strategy had such a profound effect on food insecurity among social assistance recipients is because they weren’t just focused on some arbitrary threshold, they were genuinely into tackling the depth of poverty as well. Contrast that for example to the poverty reduction strategy they rolled out in Ontario. They were focused on reducing the number of children living in poverty in Ontario but they didn't make any meaningful changes at all to the lives of people on social assistance. The centre point of their intervention was a child benefit that wasn't even distributed for many years to social assistance recipients and when it was it was restructured out of the benefits, so they experienced little if any material gain and people without children social assistance received nothing. So you know when we look at the experience of food insecurity among social assistance recipients in Ontario and they’re a significant proportion of the food insecure, they don’t move. So a poverty reduction strategy that tackles food insecurity has to get to the very depth of poverty where food insecurity is most extreme, where the probability of severe food insecurity is greatest. What I like about food insecurity and thinking about it as a policy outcome is I feel like it’s kind of taking the clothes off these poverty reduction strategies and saying you know if you’re going to introduce a poverty reduction strategy and it’s going to be effective, it should reduce the number of households who are struggling to get the food they need, who are struggling to afford, you know, food, and if it doesn’t do that then there's been some monkey business go on and you really haven’t tackled people who are poor you might have played around with the proportion below some arbitrary income threshold that you’ve set for yourself but I think it would be easy to garner widespread consensus in this country that we would not want children for example living in households where parents were struggling to feed them. And a poverty reduction strategy that doesn't change that number isn't doing its job but you know I know Brady we have to talk with something else on this podcast [Brady: No, we can talk keep going.] but for me it's been a real learning to be able to start to look at food insecurity rates provincially in relation to provincial actions around poverty and we have this extraordinary success story of Newfoundland and Labrador, and there certainly are more provincial strategies that we need to examine in detail, but we have nothing else on the surface it looks like has been anywhere near that effective in reducing food insecurity.
[25:42] Brady: I want to follow up on that but I also want to raise an issue that I wanted to be sure and get in. I'd like to ask you about we talked about social assistance but I know that you have brought up in other discussions I've watched you give presentations you emphasize that it's important to recognize that the majority of the food insecure are actually working for wages and that's one thing I wouldn’t mind you talking about. But then I don’t want to lose the issue that we’re on and have you seen other provinces learning lessons from what’s gone on in Newfoundland or is there any learning going on that you’ve observed? So I guess maybe address that first point and then let's come back to this discussion that we’re having about policies to address the problem of food insecurity.
Valerie: Yeah it is very interesting to look at the break down of food insecure households in Canada by main source of income and what we can see is that almost two-thirds, I think it’s about 62% of households that are food insecure report their main source of income being employment and as I have been saying people on social assistance are at much higher risk. Still there are fewer people on social assistance overall and so even if two thirds of them are food insecure they end up comprising only I think it’s something like 16% of the total pool of food insecure households in the country as opposed to the 62% or whatever that are people reliant on incomes from employment and that finding is an important one from a policy perspective as well because it challenges us to think about what we need to do to intervene to enable people in the workforce to make ends meet. There has been a more detailed examination of this relationship between work and food insecurity by one of our colleagues, Lynn McIntyre, who’s at the University of Calgary and what she figured out is that to be in the workforce and food insecure it's more likely to be some household where there maybe is only one person in the workforce and they’re trying feed multiple people with just one salary. There’s also people working on part-time short-term precarious work arrangements so there could be more than one person in the household working but nobody with really secure well-paying long-term full-time employment. So as other people in other disciplines are talking about precarious work and the rise of precarious work and the concerns about that and I think our findings related to food insecurity are another dimension of that concern that to have so many people in the workforce were still unable to reliably and confidently feed themselves and their families is a very serious problem.
[28:38] Brady: Have the other provinces been learning from each other in terms of, with respect to the social systems issues that you raised earlier? I know we’re kind of jumping back and forth but I wanted to make sure to come back to that.
Valerie: I think we’re still in the early days you know it hasn’t been that many years that we’ve been measuring food insecurity in Canada and the research that you and I are talking about that our group has done at least is very new and so you know I think it's gonna take time. I hope in time we will see more uptake. One thing that’s interesting one province I can actually cite is Prince Edward Island a very small province but with a concerningly high rate of food insecurity and a very high rate among social assistance recipients. Soon after we started talking about the rates across provinces and then talking about this amazing reduction in food insecurity in Newfoundland and Labrador we found that it's a small place Prince Edward Island and I think there’s a lot of really there’s a real vibrant community in terms of advocacy for things related to poverty elimination there and before we knew it our work was being talked about in the legislature there and the province did make an increase in social assistance. Now it's nowhere near as much is it needs to be but I think it's encouraging right because it did show a province responding to concerns being voiced and then being substantiated with Statistics Canada data around problems of food insecurity among social assistance recipients. I don't think their increase is enough to really change the circumstances hugely for people on social assistance, but it has to have made them better.
[30:16] Brady: One of the issues that often comes up and in terms of solutions to this problem is food banks. What do we know about the relationship between food insecurity, use of food banks and the support are enabling people to move away from food insecurity? I know you've done some work in this area.
Valerie: It’s interesting. Food banks have always been the public face of food insecurity in Canada and so I mean part of the reason that we started issuing the reports that we did that we’ve been doing with these annual statistics on food insecurity is to try to draw attention to this broader body of information that’s available in Canada about this problem. But when we look at the relationship between food bank usage and food insecurity, just at a very cursory level, the numbers of Canadians I mentioned earlier 4 million over 4 million living in food insecure households in a year, each year Food Banks Canada, the national association of food banks, reports a hunger count that includes an estimate of the number of people who were helped by food banks over the month of March that year and those numbers, when we contrast them to the national food insecurity data, those numbers are less than a quarter of the number of people reporting you know who will be living in food insecure households as assessed through this measurement, but that's a contrast of an experience over a year with an experience over a month. Food Banks Canada says well there are people who come only once a month or whatever, if we look over the year their numbers are higher but still they’re a far cry from the number of people who are food insecure. We have done a few other studies, I mean there have been a few earlier population surveys in Canada that included both questions about food insecurity and food bank usage and then maybe about 10 years ago we started doing a very detailed examination of food insecurity amongst a sample of 500 low-income families in Toronto. So we have some empirical work that has measured both food insecurity and food bank usage and those studies all confirm the impression that you get from contrasting the big food insecurity numbers from the Canadian Community Health Survey with the hunger counts from Food Banks Canada, and that is that for every person who goes to a food bank or is helped by a food bank there would be four or five others who are food insecure but not there. What's that about? Well, there are a whole lot of reasons why people don't go to food banks. Some of them relate to the structure of food banks, some of them relate to the way in which people understand their own struggles, but importantly that disconnects as we should absolutely not use food bank numbers as a proxy for rises or falls in the problem of food insecurity in our communities. The second layer though is those people who go to food banks, how are they doing? Because another way to look at this disconnect between the food bank numbers and the food insecurity numbers is to say well “gee whiz, you know all those people who are food insecure should be going to food banks because then they’d get some help, wouldn’t they?” Well, when we’ve looked more closely at people who use food banks we consider two things: people who use food banks are absolutely food insecure and if anything they are more likely to be severely food insecure. So the research that we’ve done in Toronto absolutely says that food bank usage it's a last resort. People turn to public charities for assistance only when they can't figure out what else to do and they're really struggling, so absolutely those people are food insecure. But the other finding that we have from the work in Toronto, which is very worrisome, is that we can see no evidence that to use a food bank is to be rendered food secure. To go is to be is indicative of a desperate circumstance, but after you go you’re very, very likely to still be food insecure. Why? Well because what’s happened. When you’ve gone you’ve received a bag of food or a couple bags of food. The amount of food you get will be limited because these are volunteer organizations and they’re effectively rationing the donations they are able to receive. So the amount of food will be limited, the frequency with which you can get food will also be limited and the fact that you know your struggles for food emerge out of a larger financial struggle in the household that is we’re talking about it through the lens of food today, but anybody who's food insecure is also very likely to be struggling to pay other bills, they very, very likely are behind in their rent, certainly if they are severely food insecure it’s quite, quite possible that they will be behind in their rent, they will be struggling if they have prescription medications, they probably haven’t filled those prescriptions because they can't afford to, unless they happen to have a drug benefit program which most won't. So, you know, there’s a lot going on in these households besides the fact that somebody’s struggling to put food on the table and so food charity offers only a response to the food dimension and it’s a limited response so it is important and I know this seems completely contrary to the idea that well gee if people are hungry the solution should be to give them food but the food charity systems that we have institutionalized in Canada provide very limited assistance and so while people I’m sure who use some are grateful for the assistance it's not enough to take somebody from one of these terrible situations and turn them into food secure.
[35:55] Brady: Well on that note let's talk about if you had your way what are the ideas that you would like to see brought forward? I'd also be interested in what your research around those ideas and in terms of addressing food insecurity. What kind of policies are you really hopeful that would I guess both address the problem in the short term but in the long term reduce the prevalence of food insecurity in Canada?
Valerie: I think the most hopeful thing is the discussion that seems to be heating up around the idea of a basic income. The starting point for our interest in that came from the work that Lynn McIntyre and Herb Emery did looking at the effect of seniors’ pensions and saying gee that has a profound effect on vulnerability and it is effectively an income floor, but the only people in Canada who enjoy that kind of an income floor are people who are 65 and up because that's where we’re intervening with a pension. But recently in the April budget in Ontario there was an announcement of a pilot a plan for a pilot study on a basic income and we’ve heard talk about this in Quebec as well and we've heard that you know the Liberal government is interested in this idea so I think it will be very interesting to see how it plays out. The fact that as incomes fall to a very low place the probability of food insecurity and severe food insecurity in particular rises so high, to me it says we need to intervene at that point and set a floor. The beauty of the floor over other kinds of policy interventions that we can imagine, like for example improvements to social assistance, the beauty of a basic income or an income floor is that it would reach not only people who are on social assistance but also people who are struggling to get by but in the workforce and unable to earn enough money, so it would help a lot of people. So I guess for me that's a promising direction and sometimes in conversations people say “yes, yes” but what else can we do because you know that’s pie in the sky or something. We can talk about changes to the child tax benefit or some working income tax supplement or something else or social assistance for example. We can talk about changes to other benefits that might improve the circumstances of people who are struggling but ultimately all we’re talking about is proxies or approximations, poor cousins to this idea of an income floor. So for me that's a really important direction going forward is to think about how do we funnel income support to people at the very bottom end of the income spectrum, recognizing that those people live in a variety of circumstances, there are a variety of household configurations, how do we reach them? And we need to reach them with income because every piece of evidence we’ve got suggests that at that end of the spectrum the most powerful intervention we can offer is a financial one, so that would be my starting point.
[39:03] Brady: I seem to recall that like in the United States that President Nixon brought up or proposed this idea at some point. Do we have any experience in Canada and in any of the provinces with this guaranteed income?
Valerie: We are home to probably one of the most important experiments that’s ever happened around guaranteed annual income and that was an experiment called Mincome that happened in Manitoba back in the 70s and so I know I'm not an expert in this at all but it's a fascinating, fascinating experiment. So Dauphin, Manitoba and I believe some parts of Winnipeg but Dauphin as a community had the experience of a guaranteed annual income for a period of time and there's researchers from the University of Manitoba and the lead one I think being Evelyn Forget who has done a lot of analysis of what happened over that time. Unfortunately the experiment I think did never realize its full potential because at some point the government changed and the investments that had been made in monitoring and analysis or record-keeping around the experiment I think started to fall apart, but Evelyn Forget’s work is amazing in showing that the positive benefits both from a health perspective but also more broad social benefits. One of the ones that comes to mind, I just recently happened to be somewhere where I heard her speak and one of the things that is just so, so interesting is that people stayed in school longer. Rather than having to leave school and go to work young people stayed in school longer. People make decisions differently when they knew that they didn't have a wolf at the door and there’s a beautiful quote that she offers from one of the participants from the Mincome experiment in Dauphin and it's an older woman now and she talks about how you know it wasn't a lot but it was enough so that you could put cream in your coffee. So you know we've got some evidence. Also Evelyn has looked at hospitalization healthcare utilization in relationship to the Dauphin experiment and as you would expect there are indications that people’s health improved and that's really, really important with respect to food insecurity because it’s such a profound marker of poor health and of eroding health. So yeah I mean I think there's a lot that says a guaranteed annual income would be an effective response to a good chunk of this problem, the most extreme end of this problem and that said there are always you know the other side of that is people’s concerns about will it form a disincentive to work and what will it do more broadly. And I think you know there’s people who have done research in those areas and there are answers to those questions and if there are concerns it’s very easy to implement these programs in such a way that there's an additional incentive for broader labor force participation. I think it's fair to say that the biggest criticism of the guaranteed annual income idea is this notion that it would be a disincentive to labor, but if I think back to our findings related to the high, high prevalence of working households, households in the workforce who are food insecure, these people already are working, they don't need an additional incentive but it's not enough for them to be able to put food on the table for themselves and their families. So you know I don't think we have to worry about a lack of incentive to work. Most of our food insecure are already in the workforce.
[42:35] Brady: Have you thought - I should say to listeners - for the most part in this discussion when we’ve been talking about data, we've been talking about data from a report that Valerie and her co-authors wrote from 2012 but I should note in the 2014 paper “Household Food Insecurity in Canada” on page 11 there's a really nice kind of graphic that traces out the relationship between food insecurity by household income and on that graph at less than $10,000 I guess in annual income you know there's a 50% prevalence, but then it falls gradually almost like a downward sloping line as you move higher and that's a nice graphic in the context of the conversation we’re having, and I was wondering Valerie have you thought and you may not gone into this much detail yet, but have you thought about what that guaranteed income in terms of magnitude would look like?
Valerie: Well you know we’re getting there. We’ve just started to try to figure out how we could model the effect of an income-based intervention and I think that’s going to be a really important thing for us to do, right? To see just how far can we move this needle where can we get the biggest bang for our buck? I'm delighted that you have drawn attention to that graph, it’s my favorite thing, it's our new innovation in the 2014 report and I just think it's so interesting. When we break open the relationship between food insecurity and income by these three levels of food insecurity, marginal, moderate and severe what we can see is that the moderate and severe are the things that are much, much more sharply happening at that bottom end of the income spectrum, so one of the things that we’re trying to figure out is how to model the effect of an income floor and play around a little bit to see what do we need to do to get that severe in particular the severe and moderate categories down because those are the ones that look like they are most sensitive to income interventions at the bottom end and from a health perspective there’s no question they’re the most important so I think it's something that I hope will come forward in the future, but it feels to me like it's one of the frontiers for us as researchers in this field now is to figure out what would it look like to intervene and what does that intervention what form does it need to take to maximize the impact without just unnecessarily squandering money?
[45:06] Brady: Valerie, you’ve raised a number of important issues that students at the University of Guelph and at other universities are going to find very thought-provoking. But I wondered if you could step back and kind of as a way of ending this podcast and maybe speak directly to students about you know a lot of people are going to be inspired and want to address this issue. What would you suggest? What kind of steps might they take? What experience have you had that have really made a difference in your ability to be able to be in the position you are and address these questions? [laughter] Tough one at the end, huh?
Valerie: I'm glad you didn't start with this one we would’ve had nothing but dead air [laughing]. For me, the movement in Canada to finally measure this problem is extremely important and you know I could never get the quote right, but there's this saying that you know a problem doesn't exist until you measure it and so I think the measurement aspects have been really, really important and I think the longer I as a researcher have worked in this field the more I’ve learned about kind of separating the concept of food insecurity or the measurement construct from you know sort of broader notions of food that you know I mean look at this podcast. Most of what you and I have talked about here is income and income support programs like social assistance. We haven’t talked hardly at all about food and food-based interventions or food needs. I guess, what would I say to people who find this interesting? I’d say figure out how you can do things in this area and I don't mean charity I mean I think that for a very, very long time the only opportunity any of us have had to participate if we are concerned about problems like hunger or food insecurity in our country has been through acts of food charity and that’s fine, but to get beyond that into thinking about public policy I just think it’s really important for young people to become engaged in public issues and social issues and to start to think about them in a political framework and to start to sort of talk about them that way. I mean there’s a growing movement on campuses around food insecurity and student food insecurity and I am not sure that that’s anywhere near as big a problem as the food insecurity experienced by people on social assistance for example, but you know I think that as people become more aware of these problems I think it's really, really important to get politicized and to start to see these things as they relate to public policy decisions because I feel like increasingly with our research what we’re seeing is that insecurity is something that’s preventable. You know if we had a societal consensus that we didn't want to have anybody in these circumstances we could do that and we wouldn’t be doing it by making donations anywhere; we would be doing it by restructuring our policies in a way that protected people from these problems. So you know I think there’s a lot here and I guess I would just invite listeners to think bigger in terms of problems of hunger and food insecurity in Canada, to think bigger and to think about them more from a policy perspective.
[48:30] Brady: Dr. Valerie Tarasuk thank you for sharing your ideas with us on FARE Talk today.
Valerie: Thank you very much for your interest in this the topic. We much appreciate the opportunity to do [music begins] a podcast with you, so thank you.
Brady: Thanks for joining us at FARE Talk. We hope you will continue to check our website for updates and the latest podcast.
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