British Columbia

New StatsCan study highlights financial distress of B.C. overdose victims

The study looked at tax information, including T-4 income slips and social assistance benefits, of people who died of illicit drug overdose between Jan. 1, 2007 and Dec. 31, 2016.

Study looks at T-4 income slips, social assistance benefits of people who died

Statistics Canada's new study released April 10 draws a connection between overdose victims and inconsistent employment. (CBC)

A new Statistics Canada study is shedding light on the economic situation of people who died of opioid overdoses in B.C.

The study looked at tax information, including T-4 income slips and social assistance benefits, of people who died of illicit drug overdose between Jan. 1, 2007 and Dec. 31, 2016.

The findings showed the majority of the 3,128 people who died of overdoses in that period had less employment and more reliance on social assistance than the general population. 

"So, an increasing degree of financial vulnerability and being outside of the labour force to an increasing extent," said Grant Schellenberg, one of the lead authors of the study and a Statistics Canada researcher. 

In the year before they died, 48 per cent of men and 28 per cent of women were employed in some capacity. That compares to 77 per cent of men and 73 per cent of women who had jobs among the general population in 2015. 

The situation was worse for women over a five year span before they died. For 70 percent of the 729 women, the study found participation in formal employment was "weak or absent." 

Naloxone kits are widely distributed in an effort to prevent overdose deaths from illicit drug use. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Half of women were on social assistance income in the five years leading up to their death, the report found.

A smaller percentage of overdose victims were employed for all five years. Just 14 per cent of women consistently worked, making on average $22,000 a year. 

"Social assistance was clearly, from what we observed, an important part of the income stream of these individuals in the face of very weak ties to the workforce," Schellenberg said.  

The situation for men was better, but still low. Twenty-eight per cent of men had jobs throughout the five years, with average annual earnings of $42,200.  

The decline of economic stability with age

The study found that economic vulnerability was worse for both men and women as they got older. 

Among women over 35, for example, 80 per cent received social assistance in the year prior to death. More than half of men over 35 did. Many weren't in the workforce at all at that time. 

"Further analysis is needed to determine what accounts for the decline in employment across age groups; however, the results are consistent with the argument that regular substance use gradually erodes the capacity for work," the report stated.  

Putting the numbers to work

Schellenberg said findings from the study could be used for intervention strategies developed by social services, employers and advocacy groups. 

He said the data can help inform how to best reach people at risk — whether at their workplace or when receiving their social assistance cheque.

For men under 35 who died, more than half were still at work. Among them, 29 per cent were employed in the construction industry.  

"The relatively large share of individuals who had died of a drug overdose did have prior employment in construction," he said.   

The data suggested workplace intervention could be effective for that group. 

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