Date of Award

Fall 2011

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MSc)




Wendy Sword


Ruta Valaitis



Committee Member

Donna Ciliska


Research has demonstrated repeatedly that income and income distribution are powerful determinants of health. While Ontario public health units are mandated to promote health and reduce health inequities, they have done little to help eliminate poverty, instead focusing on individual behaviours such as smoking, diet, and physical activity – an approach likely to worsen health inequities, rather than mend them. Public health nurses (PHNs) across Canada recognize poverty as a powerful determinant of health, yet have expressed challenges in their ability to take meaningful action to address it (Cohen, 2006b; Reutter & Ford, 1996). The study sought insight into how Ontario public health units can strengthen PHNs socio-political efforts to address the causes of poverty. A qualitative descriptive design was used to explore PHNs’ views, while an Appreciative Inquiry approach was used to draw on participants’ successful past experiences in addressing the causes of poverty and their thoughts for the future. Organizational factors thought to empower PHNs’ socio-political efforts to address the causes of poverty were identified using Kanter’s Structural Theory of Power in Organizations as a starting conceptual framework. Fifteen PHNs participated in face-to-face or telephone interviews. Qualitative content analysis was used to describe participants’ affirmative experiences, empowering organizational attributes, and desired actions and supports for the future. Three overall themes emerged with respect to empowering organizational attributes: authorities within the health unit ‘permit and provide’, active associates ‘help each other out’, and external allies ‘contribute and collaborate’. Factors beyond the health unit that would support anti-poverty work were also identified. Findings suggested that action to address the causes of poverty is within the reach of PHNs, and is consistent with their role and the public health mandate, but requires leadership support and political buy-in in order to maximize its effectiveness.

McMaster University Library