How do poverty and austerity measures make us sick?

Poverty and austerity are making us sick - here's how

This article, by Health Poverty Action’s Director, Martin Drewry, first appeared in The Independent.

After years of cuts to public services, the news that life expectancy has stagnated for the first time in 100 years is no surprise. Poverty is on the rise in Britain, and poverty kills.

People in more equal societies live longer, rate their health as better and are less likely to watch their children die in infancy. At Health Poverty Action, we’ve been working with some of the poorest communities around the world. Whether it’s being unable to afford nutritious food, poor housing or simply the stresses of poverty, we know that poverty and poor health are inseparably intertwined.

Various studies show job insecurity is associated with high blood pressure, poor mental health, smoking, drinking and an unhealthy diet. What’s more, recently unemployed young men are twice as likely to see a GP for anxiety and depression, three times more likely to smoke and drink, and 10 times more likely to attempt suicide.

Or take the links between nutrition and poverty. Whilst in many of the world’s poorest countries, inadequate nutrition results in around 45 per cent of all deaths among children under five, in the UK, poverty is creating another health crisis: obesity. This increases the risk of liver and cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. Globally, being overweight or obese contributes to an estimated four million deaths.

Economic insecurity and austerity are factors in obesity doubling in the UK over the last 30 years. Studies show that when families are poor, they not only buy less food but also poorer-quality food. If you have a fiver to feed your family, filling carbohydrates like potatoes and pasta are more likely to be on the menu than spending half your budget on vegetables.

Time poverty is another factor – it’s hard to cook from scratch if you’re juggling two jobs – as is eating for comfort from the grinding stress you are under.

What’s more, the food industries aggressive marketing of junk food is due to lenient government regulation. Knowing that they’re allowed, the junk food industry will even specifically target people from lower-income areas through billboard advertising, and online. As these examples make clear, poor health is political, and governments have a responsibility to make sure we’re healthy.

Whether it’s down to the Government allowing zero-hour contracts or the corporate takeover of the NHS, we must not forget that these decisions are making us sick.

Globally, this approach driven by the pursuit of economic growth has failed. In the 80s, global institutions lent money to the world’s poorest countries on the condition that they slash government spending, open up their markets for trade deals, and allow privatisation and deregulation to increase foreign investment. This proved deadly, and citizens of the countries who faced the greatest pressures of these policies, for example, much of Sub Saharan Africa, experienced the starkest declines in life expectancy. We should have learned from this, but we haven’t.

In the continued obsession with austerity and capitalism, governments are pushing people’s lives and wellbeing aside.

What’s worse, rather than admit that these are social problems requiring social solutions, they have generated a mantra which puts the blame on our lifestyle as the cause of poor health, deflecting attention from their own policy choices.

The good news is the fact that these policies are created means they can also be undone. We need to shatter the neoliberal bubble and stop pretending that simple economic growth will save us – if that was the case why does the US have one of the highest rates of GDP whilst more women die in childbirth than any rich country?

Instead, we need to put health and people’s lives at the forefront of policymaking and recognise that poverty and health are interlinked. That means addressing the housing and social care crises, giving people secure work with a decent wage, and reversing the cuts to our public services.

We should also stop using the monetary term “austerity” to gloss over what’s happening to people, and call this what it really is – cuts to public services that cost lives.

Read our report on the alternatives that put people’s health and wellbeing over profit.