Public health researchers have long known that poverty and poor health are linked, but new evidence suggests that social assistance — the government system designed to provide those in poverty with income support — is not succeeding at protecting health.

Using data from national government surveys, we studied the health impact of social assistance programs in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom — and the results are surprising.

Income is key to health, and substantial research indicates it’s involved in almost every pathway leading to almost every health outcome. People with higher incomes tend to be less susceptible to harmful health behaviours, such as smoking. They’re better able to afford housing and nutritious foods, less exposed to the stresses of everyday life and are better able to cope with stress when it arises.

So we expected to find that the income supports provided by social assistance programs would improve the health outcomes of those receiving benefits. But our study, commissioned by the Ontario government and recently submitted to the provincial Ministry of Community and Social Services and the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, tells another story: current approaches to social assistance are not improving the health of recipients.