TORONTO – A group of doctors and nurses urged the Ontario government Tuesday to raise the minimum wage to $14 from $10.25 an hour, calling poverty “the biggest barrier to good health.”

Members of Health Providers Against Poverty said stress from living in poverty releases chemicals in the body that inhibit brain growth in infants and children.

“There’s a noticeable difference for children meeting their developmental milestones and for school readiness in Ontario communities where there is more poverty,” said nurse Lorraine Telford, who works at a community health centre in Mississauga.

“One in four children arrive set up to fail in school. Ten per cent of Ontario children live in absolute poverty, and one-in-seven are currently in deprived situations.”

Dr. Gary Bloch, a family physician at St. Michael’s Hospital in downtown Toronto, said he often deals with patients who can’t afford medication, and finds he has to worry first about their living conditions before he deals with their health issues.

“I often completely flip over the way I deal with that person’s health problems … we first need to focus in on your income and your precarious housing situation and your child care situation, and I can spend hours dealing with that,” said Bloch. “And I do find that those are the interventions that end up improving that patient’s health.”

The group said hiking the minimum wage to $14 an hour would mean a pre-tax difference of $650 a month to the lowest-paid workers in Ontario.

Those low-income earners spend money locally, said Axelle Janczur of the Access Alliance Community Health Centre.

“This would all be increased consumer power and economic activity locally, so these are the benefits also that we need to focus on,” she said.

The health care coalition said the increase in the minimum wage could be phased in over two years to give businesses more time to adapt to the change.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses said large jumps in the minimum wage tend to hurt the very people they are supposed to help, low-skilled and low-income workers, because hikes force small businesses to absorb the cost through “reduced hours, reduced training or even job cuts.”

The Ontario Chamber of Commerce and the Retail Council of Canada said they want any changes to the minimum wage linked to inflation rather than to “the politically-driven, policy setting agendas of incumbent governments.”

But Block said the predicted “job apocalypse” failed to materialize after previous increases in the minimum wage, which in Ontario has been frozen for four years.

“Every time the minimum wage has gone up we have not seen huge swaths of small businesses closing,” he said.

“We need to shine a spotlight on why massive, multi-billion-dollar, multi-national corporations allow workers to earn a below-poverty wage.”

Statistics Canada data show nine per cent of Ontario’s workforce, or almost 500,000 people, were working for minimum wage in 2011, more than double the number from 2003. More than 10 per cent of women worked for minimum wage in 2011, compared with 7.6 per cent of men, and while young people made up the bulk of minimum wage workers in 2011, nearly 40 per cent were 25 or older.

Ontario’s $10.25 minimum wage is on par with British Columbia, and in the remaining provinces and territories it ranges from $9.95 to $11 an hour.

The Liberals have set up a special panel to advise the government on how to best determine the amount of future increases in the minimum wage, and how to implement them.