Why poverty is bad for the nation’s health

28 March 2019

Government data released today on households below average income show that many families in the UK are struggling to achieve a decent standard of living. In 2017/18, there were 14 million people living in households with an income below the poverty line (after housing costs). This is 22% of the UK population. The figures also show that in the last few years, both child and pensioner poverty have been on the rise and in-work poverty has reached a new high.

So why does this matter? When considering the extent of poverty in this country, one of the things we cannot afford to lose sight of is this: being poor is bad for your health.

Data published this week by the Office for National Statistics show a staggering level of variation in the years of life you can expect to live in good health in England and Wales depending on your social and economic circumstances. People born in the most deprived areas of England are expected to have over 18 fewer years of life in good health than those born in the least deprived areas.

Living in poverty affects health in direct and indirect ways. There are the immediate consequences of living in poor-quality housing, such as greater risk of respiratory problems and increased stress from exposure to noise and overcrowding. Consuming the same calories from healthier food is on average three times more expensive compared to less healthy food.

The poorest neighbourhoods have greater exposure to air pollution. 80% of London primary schools with poor air quality are in the most deprived communities. Typically, these neighbourhoods have fewer places to exercise and buy healthy food, plus increased exposure to fast food outlets and betting shops.

Managing on a low income can also lead to continual stress, which affects mental health, wellbeing and relationships. Stress is increasingly being shown to have a long-term physiological impact, particularly for exposures during childhood.

Incentivising people into work, one of the aims of universal credit, is a good thing if the work and working environments are of a high quality. Overall, more people are in work than last year, which is good news. However, today’s data indicate that being in work doesn’t necessarily equate to being out of poverty. In fact, of the people living in poverty (after housing costs), 57% actually have someone in work in their household.

From a public health perspective, any underfunded welfare system – coupled with an uneven labour market – will put the most vulnerable at the greatest risk of long-term damage to their health. Compromising people’s long-term health by subjecting them to the pathogen of poverty is not in the interest of the individual nor indeed of society.

Good health is a necessary foundation for the country’s social and economic prosperity. The British public place significant value on their health, as the continued priority attached to the NHS in polling demonstrates. However, investments that keep people healthy in the first place are critical. Cuts to the generosity of working-age benefits risk confining people to live in poverty and to lead less healthy lives.

This is an amended version of an article that first appeared on The Times Red Box on 13 November 2018.

Jo Bibby (@JoBibbyTHF) is Director of Health at the Health Foundation

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