Category: inequality

Down and Out

In the spring of 1928, aged about 24, Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) moved to Paris, a city in which the cost of living was very low. He tried to earn a living by writing and giving English lessons, but it hardly paid. He was then stripped of his possessions and money by “a little trollop he’d picked up in a café” leaving him with very little cash. His parents back home in England were spared the knowledge of his predicament, possibly due to his concern for their middle class sensibilities. He could have returned home to Southwold, but having previously chosen to leave a career in the Imperial Indian Police in Burma, that was not an attractive path. He had little option but to work in the foul kitchens of the Hotel Lotti on the Rue de Rivoli. His final impecunious 10 weeks in Paris provided the material for his book, Down and Out in Paris and London, the first draft of which was completed in 1930. This was no journalist’s assignment, research or a gimmick.

 

The following are observations on poverty in the early chapter of the book and reveal something of the life he led.

 

“…it is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty….you thought it would be terrible, it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first…the shifts it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust wiping.

 

You discover, for instance, the secrecy attaching to poverty…you dare not admit it, you have to pretend that you are living quite as usual.

 

You discover what it is like to be hungry…everywhere there is food insulting you in huge wasteful piles…a snivelling self pity comes over you at the sight of so much food.

 

You discover the boredom…you discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs…

 

…but you discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future…

 

And there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs – and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety”.

 

(Chapter 3, Down and Out in Paris and London 1933)

 

 

Squalor, boredom, secrecy, hunger, future discounting and relief from anxiety were the key features, for Orwell, of poverty. In 1930 in Paris there was no system of welfare benefits to fall back on. In London , the casual wards (‘The Spikes’) provided some refuge, although the conditions were far from salubrious. Orwell went hungry, and at times had absolutely no money. One lack, which was sorely felt, was that of tobacco, something he again experienced on the front line in Spain when he later joined the POUM militia (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, or Worker’s Party of Marxist Unification) in the civil war in Catalonia. The privations in the front line caused by the conditions and the absolute lack of resources for the militia was another form of poverty.

 

“In trench warfare five things are important: firewood, food, tobacco, candles and the enemy. In winter…they were important in that order” (Homage to Catalonia 1938, p23).

 

Winter in the Catalan trenches, Spring in Paris, but in this list we can note the reduction of human need to Maslow’s base of his hierachy of need. Apart from the ‘enemy’ in Spain the similarity is of course there to see. Orwell in both books mentions the centrality of tobacco, and of course of alcohol, in daily life.

 

It might be tempting to dismiss Orwell’s observations as belonging to another age and therefore of little relevance to the experience of poverty today in modern Welfare States. That I think would be a mistake. The psychosocial sequelae of poverty remain the same; what it does to self, self esteem and the setting of priorities.

 

The ‘secrecy’, the ‘dare not admit it’, alludes to what Erving Goffman called ‘passing’ in his theory of Stigma. People with a stigma try to ‘pass’ as normal to avoid oppressive acts.

Poverty was and is a stigmatising condition. Orwell tells of sitting in parks in Paris but being very aware of the distaste expressed by women particularly, towards him.

A source of stigma, for Goffman, arises out of an actual or perceived ‘character blemish’. Another source is membership of a ‘tribe’. Poverty provides both sources. Currently, many believe the poor to be at fault for their poverty due to their poor moral choices and character weaknesses. The Moral Underclass Discourse emphasises that the fault lies within the individual. The poor may also be seen as members of a ‘tribe’ who live apart from the deserving and hard working families; they are the chavs, the skivers, the welfare scroungers.

Poverty can be a discrediting stigma as it might have an outward appearance, or it could also be a discreditable stigma as an internal invisible ‘mark’ known only to the poor themselves. It can, of course, be a felt stigma and an enacted stigma as society exercises certain sanctions and behaviours towards the poor. Family members and friends of those on hard times may feel courtesy stigma on their behalf.

Thus, as a highly stigmatising condition, those who today are in poverty may wish to hide away or use ‘maladaptive coping mechanisms’ such as smoking, drinking or drug taking. Orwell’s continual descriptions of the need for and centrality of tobacco illustrates this point. Many today would see tobacco as a dangerous luxury. His fixation with food illustrates the shifting of priorities, and the collapse of time to orientate to the present. Future discounting might explain why the dangers of smoking and the future threats to health just do not impact on present behaviour.  It also clearly illustrates is the exercise of one’s personal agency being highly mediated by (and mediating) the culture and the social structures one lives in. It may seem to today’s sensibilities that tobacco use would or should be resisted if poor. However, Orwell makes it plain to see how one’s psychological state gets reduced and focused in both time and space. His ‘annihilation of the future’ and ‘boredom’ are telling. It might explain why we make what seems to be irrational decisions in the face of hardship. Orwell of course would have a way out, but if one believes that the future is set, the discounting of the future to deal with the present may be a highly rational strategy.

The fear of poverty disappearing, because one is actually poor, is another seemingly irrational mind set. But if the dogs have turned up you at least know you can sink no lower. There is no such thing as status anxiety, or keeping up with the Jones’. The ‘psychosocial comparison’ thesis of poor health outcomes no longer applies to you because the fear of being compared and of comparing has been assuaged by the surety of the lowliness of status. What is left is survival today, not tomorrow, because tomorrow never comes.

Before we thus rush to judgment on the choices the poor make, or provide theories of why there is poverty based on individual failure, Orwell’s exposition provides a window into their world and might make us think twice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Health based on Poverty and its measurement.

Photo by Adam Jang on Unsplash

Health based on Poverty and its measurement.

 

One of the explanatory frameworks, or ‘discourses’, for ill health and health inequalities around access to health services and health outcomes, is that of the ‘material deprivation’ thesis, which underpins much of the Marmot Review Fair Society Healthy Lives. It sits within a ‘Redistribution discourse’, which suggests the answer is redistribution of material resources. Alongside this is the ‘Psychosocial Comparison Thesis’, which underpins such work as Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level. This forms part of the ‘Social Integrationist discourse’ in which reduction of social inequalities and better integration of marginalised groups is important.

 

Material deprivation focuses on a lack of resources to support healthy living while psychosocial comparison suggests one’s position in the social hierarchy, and the level of inequality in society, create psychosocial stress harmful to health. They are not mutually exclusive and of course might work together for some individuals resulting in poorer health outcomes for them. Being poor in a very unequal society is thus very harmful to health and results in gross inequalities in health.

 

A third explanatory framework is the ‘cultural thesis’ which suggests it is the culture of certain behaviours, attitudes, values and norms that are the root cause of ill health. Another term for this way of thinking is the ‘moral underclass discourse’. The answer is to make better choices and improve lifestyle activities such as stopping smoking, reducing alcohol consumption, exercising more and eating better. Poor people are disproportionately ill because of their poor life decisions. The ‘underclass’ make poor moral decisions and therefore bring ill health upon themselves. The material deprivation they experience is a result of their own poor life choices, their parents’ life choices, or it results from being ill, preventing them from working or making better life choices (the deserving poor).

 

The Consensual Method of measuring poverty.

 

A link between all three is material deprivation resulting from poverty, but what do we mean by poverty and how is it measured? In the UK we do not use the concept of absolute poverty, instead some reports are using the term ‘relative poverty’, one measure of which is the consensual method. The research project Poverty and Social Exclusion (PSE) outlines what this is. In short this focuses on deprivation as:

 

“enforced lack of necessities determined by public opinion”.

 

In the consensual approach we first need to establish what those items are that make up our ‘standard of living’ and then identify which of those items most people view as ‘necessities’. Consider a mobile phone as an item, if most people think this is a necessity, then not having one begins to identify oneself as poor. The necessities are what most people think everyone should be able to afford and which no one should be without. Poverty is where these deprivations impact on a person’s whole way of life; to measure poverty we need to know how many people there are whose ‘enforced lack of necessities’ affects their way of living. Note that those who choose not to have these necessities would not count.

 

Items that are necessary include the social as well as the material. The PSE have published data on what the public thinks those items are: for example, 96% of us think ‘heating to warm living areas of the home’, 94% think a ‘damp free home’ and 91% think ‘two meals a day for adults’ are some of the necessities. However some items go beyond ‘basic’ needs such as ‘visiting friends/family in hospital’ (90%), and ‘attending a wedding/funeral’ (79%).

 

What do you think everyone should be able to afford?

What do you think no one should be without?

 

Once we have these benchmarks, then we can start to measure the base line below which society considers people to be deprived. This is what is being attempted since 1983 and the ‘Breadline Britain’report.

 

The 2013 PSE first report ‘The impoverishment of the UK’ PSE first results: Living Standards’ indicates the scale and extent of poverty in the UK (the 6th richest country as measured by GDP per capita). One section of the report ‘Going backwards 1983-2012’ suggests that the proportion of households falling below minimum standards has doubled since 1983:

 

1. More children lead impoverished and restricted lives today than in 1999.

2. 5 million more people live in inadequate housing than in the 1990s.

3. 9% of households can’t heat their homes adequately today up from 5% in 1983 and 3% in 1999.

4. 33% of households experience below par living standards.

 

This is despite the fact that the UK is a far richer country now than it was in the 1980’s. The size of the economy has doubled over the last 30 years. This supports the claim that economic and wealth creation has benefitted the better off while families lower down continue to struggle to meet their basic needs.

 

Source: http://www.poverty.ac.uk/pse-research/going-backwards-1983-2012

 

If you emphasise that ill health and deprivation results from poor life choices, then you might not be interested that more and more families are experiencing deprivation of this kind. It is a case of them not taking up opportunities, not working hard at their education or not moving to where employment is higher, i.e. London and the South East. However, you might want to wonder why more and more families are making these poor life choices since the 1980’s, especially if during that time knowledge about what is the basis for a healthy life, is more easily accessible with the internet.

 

Or you might think that regardless of the fact that more people falling into this category, this does not mean that they are also more likely to experience health inequalities such as reductions in life expectancy. The data from such sources as the Community Health Profiles and that contained in ‘Fair Society, Healthy Lives’ and ‘The Spirit Level’ would suggest otherwise.

 

 

 

Source: http://www.poverty.ac.uk/pse-research/going-backwards-1983-2012

 

 

watch this video for a first hand account.

 

 

What are the implications of this knowledge for nurses? Is this a ‘social issue’ irrelevant to nursing practice?

 

 

The Violence of Austerity 2

Rudolph Virchow (1848) argued that ‘medicine is a social science and politics is nothing more than medicine on a grand scale’.

Structural and Institutional violence arises from the implementation of Austerity. Cameron, Osborne, May and Hammond have blood on their hands. Johnson, Gove, Rudd, Grayling…….

In 2013 David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu published ‘The Body Economic – Why Austerity Kills’ and stated that since 2007 the total number of suicides had risen by 10000 across the US and Europe while millions lost access to basic healthcare. Chopra (2014) reviews the book and points out that ‘Mental health outcomes feature prominently in these analyses. For instance, the authors report 1000 excess suicides in the UK due to the effects of this recession and a second wave of ‘austerity suicides’ in 2012‘.

 

Following the Great Financial Crash (GFC) of 2008, the neoliberal project in the UK was given an opportunity to push further on its (class) agenda which had been based on reducing State support for the public sector and social security claimants, encouraging privatisations, establishing financial deregulation, reduction of corporate tax and removing ‘red tape’ (worker’s rights and enviromental protection). The theory was based on ‘trickle down economics’ and Hayekian ‘free markets’. Jobs, growth and investment would follow. Austerity in this context was seen as a necessary corrective to the failing economy. It was not mentioned of course that one reason for the GFC was neoliberalism itself. In effect we have a neoliberal policy being implemented to correct the failures of neoliberalism.

For the sake of argument, lets accept the claim that indeed the UK enjoyed pre crash levels of growth above OECD averages (it has not), produced a high number of well paid secure, high skilled jobs with wage growth (it did not), and that investment significantly rose (it has not) and that productivity has soared (it has not). What is Austerity and what are its founding myths?

If a major tenet of neoliberalism is a reduction in state withdrawal from services and from support for workers and claimants, Austerity turbo charges it in the name of deficit reduction to address the national debt.

Austerity is first and foremost a move to permanently dissemble the protection state (Cooper and Whyte 2017) through reductions in targetted public spending. The view is taken that skivers and shirkers have grown fat on the largesse of the British Welfare State, a State that breeds dependency and since the GFC it is argued is now unaffordable. It is not about reducing state spending per se, as subsidies to the nuclear industry and help to buy schemes attest. Indeed State spending as a % share of GDP has not really moved since 2010. It is this that makes the ‘reduction of state spending’ neoliberalism rhetoric (as ideologically based class war) but not reality for the rich.

 

Austerity is based on the idea of ‘expansionary fiscal consolidation‘ (Alesina and Perotti 1995). Government cuts to public spending will (the theory says) encourage more private consumption and business investment. Not cutting public spending jeopardises investment and competitiveness. The reality is that public consumption in the UK is debt fuelled rather than from higher wages, and investment remains very poor.

Three myths underpin this approach from 2010:

  1. We all played a part in the financial crisis (New Labour caused the crash).
  2. Austerity is necessary.
  3. We are all in this together.

However, this masks real reasons for the policy:

  1. To further ease Capital Accumulation for the rich.
  2. To further extend wealth by growing inequality and through dispossession.
  3. To permanently dissemble the protectionist State.

In short: the violence of class war. Capital v Labour, the irreducible foundational contradiction of capitalism.

The institutional violence meted out by for example by G4S and ATOS is ‘ordinary’ mundane process violence, it is not exceptional but routine as experienced in people’s lives, involving fear humiliation, hunger, shame and early deaths. Using ‘maladaptive coping’ such as eating high fat sugary food, smoking, excessive drinking, taking drugs and having unprotected promiscuous sex, are as much reactions to as causes of poverty and violence. This ‘Moral Underclass Discourse’, which points to poor individual lifestyle choices, ignores the wider determinants of health, the mass of data on the ‘social gradient’ in health and of health inequalities. It also does not understand the complexity of personal agency and social structure in which reflexive deliberations (our inner voices) mediate between objective social structures, cultures and our personal concerns and projects.

We make our own history, but not in the circumstances of our own choosing“.

Institutional violence is pervasive and normalised so that we don’t always see it or feel it for what it is. Food banks, deportations, homelessness, debt, trafficking, evictions, precarity in low wage jobs are becoming part of the social fabric that is getting thinner by the day. This violence is slow violence whose effects may take time to come through. It also provides a pervasive threat of violence for those lacking the financial, social, cultural capital to either protect themselves or to escape.

Richard Horton (2017) in the Lancet (note not ‘Marxism Today’) outlined the arguments well:

Economists are the gods of global health. Their dazzling cloak of quantitative authority and their monstrously broad range of inquiry silence the smaller voices of medicine, trapped as we are in the modest discipline of biology. Economists stepped beyond the boundaries of the body long ago. They now bestride the predicaments of our planet with confident insouciance. It is economists we must thank for the modern epidemic of austerity that has engulfed our world. Austerity is the calling card of neoliberalism. Its effects follow an inverse harm law—the impact of increasing amounts of austerity varies inversely with the ability of communities to protect themselves. Austerity is an instrument of malice. Search under austerity and you will find few countries unaffected. Greece, of course, but also Mozambique, France, Scotland, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, Cameroon, Belgium, the Netherlands, South Africa, and England. Economists advocating, and governments implementing, austerity naturally reject the word. Instead, they call austerity, “living within our means”. But be clear. What is promoted as fiscal discipline is a political choice. A political choice that deepens the already open and bloody wounds of the poor and precarious. The Financial Times, a newspaper usually in thrall to the spectacle of economics, called these policies “inhumane” last weekend.

But austerity is also a social contract. People accept severe restraints in public spending, actively in democracies or passively in autocracies, because they accept the unpalatable prescription of abstinence. Yet the public too has a choice. And they are exercising that choice in countries across the globe. Take the UK. Back in 1991, two-thirds of the British population wanted more taxation and spending. But by 2006, only a third of people backed redistribution of wealth. If not welcomed, austerity was accepted. Not now. In the latest British Social Attitudes Survey, published last week, public opinion had turned against the idea of brutal scarcity. 48% of people wanted taxation increased to enable greater investments in society. 42% supported redistribution of income. And health was their priority—83% of people wanted more spending on our collective wellbeing. After a decade of cutting back the reach of government, the public is now demanding a stronger and more generous state. The contract authorising austerity has been torn up“.

Richard seems to be suggesting we may be at a turning point. I hope he is right, but with a Brexit fixated government backed by 30% of those eligible to vote (the 52%) and the cheerleaders in the right wing press driving politics onwards, I don’t yet see much hope.

The Violence of Austerity

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

This is based on the recent 2017 book by Vickie Cooper and David Whyte.

When society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual.” Engels (1845) ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’.

Let us be clear from the outset. This is not about interpersonal violence carried out by one person directly on another using physical or emotional force. This is about Institutional violence, carried out by smartly dressed ordinary men and women in offices up and down the country, who often are merely following orders or who were architects of the policies that kill or cause physical and psychological harm. The malefactors of great wealth stand behind the lines cheering them on, using their propaganda news media to convince the victims that the victims are to blame. The malefactors of great wealth also grow fat on the proceeds of the sales of products designed to dull the senses and anaesthetise the pain caused by institutional or structural violence – high fat, sugar loaded fast foods, cigarettes, alcohol, cheap TV and mass culture in a dystopian miasma of false dreams.

Some may doubt the existence of institutional violence, perhaps arguing that only human beings can directly inflict pain. Johan Galtung (1969) in ‘Violence, Peace and Peace Research’ wrote of structural violence; a violence in which some social structure or social institution causes harm by preventing people from meeting basic needs. This is a model of violence that goes beyond notions that focus only on individual agency. Gregg Barak (2003) in ‘Violence and Nonviolence: pathways to understanding’ argues:

Like interpersonal forms of violence, institutional forms include physically or emotionally abusive acts. However, institutional forms of violence are usually, but not always, impersonal: that is to say, almost any person from the designated group of victims will do.

Yes. “any person” from the sea of faceless ‘skivers, shirkers, unemployed, disabled, sick, mentally ill, low paid and feckless’ who have been systematically stripped of their personhood by bureaucratic processes designed to make their lives hell in order to ‘incentivise’ them to find work.

Barak goes on: “Moreover, abuses or assaults that are practiced by corporate bodies—groups, organizations, or even a single individual on behalf of others—include those forms of violence that over time have become “institutionalized,” such as war, racism, sexism, terrorism, and so on. These forms of violence may be expressed directly against particular victims by individuals and groups or indirectly against entire groups of people by capricious policies and procedures carried out by people “doing their jobs,” differentiated only by a myriad of rationales

People “doing their jobs” using thoughtlessness, banality and cliché to justify their actions or perhaps in fear of joining the ranks of the precariat themselves. The current most important banality and cliché currently in force is ‘Austerity’ and its attendant lies used as justification.

Galtung: “violence is present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations”

  1. Violence is a phenomenon which reduces a person’s potential for performance. A distinction must be made between violence and force, since the former breeds negative results, while this is not necessarily so in the case of the latter. This is an important option, because many people consider that violence may have both positive and negative results.
  2. Violence should be objectively measured according to its results, not in a subjective manner. Suicide, mental illness, mortality and morbidity rates, hunger, and poverty.

Felipe, MacGregor and Marcial Rubio refer back to Galtung and provide their own definition of violence:

A physical, biological or spiritual pressure, directly or indirectly exercised by a person on someone else, which, when exceeding a certain threshold, reduces or annuls that person’s potential for performance, both at an individual and group level, in the society in which this takes place”.

Criticism of structural or institutional violence, and the denial thereof, may focus on the need for an actor; an actor who can then be held liable for such action. Personal or direct violence is a violence in which an aggressor can be identified, face to face, whereby the victim can recognise a guilty person through direct confrontation. This is far too narrow a definition with perhaps the paradigm case for institutional violence being Adolf Eichmann who never actually got his hands dirty.

If these definitions hold, current government ministers, civil servants, local authority bureaucrats are complicit in the violence inflicted upon claimants for universal credit, those who died undergoing work capability assessments and those who died in Grenfell Tower.

It is the contention of Cooper and Whyte, along with Stuckler and Basu, that ‘Austerity kills’.

The richest 1,000 people have more wealth than the poorest 40% of households (UK)

The richest 1,000 people in the UK have more wealth than the poorest 40% of UK households. The 1,000 richest saw their wealth increase by a staggering £82.5 billion last year, the equivalent of £226 million a day, or £2,615 a second.

The Equality Trust has found that this increase in wealth of £82.5 billion could:

Pay the energy bills of all 25.6 million UK households for two and a half years. Cost = £79.15 billion OR

Provide 5,143,819 million Living Wage jobs , or 2,923,333 million jobs paid at an average salary for a year. Cost = £82.476 billion OR

Pay the grocery bill for all of the UK’s users of food banks for 56 years . Cost = £81.5 billion OR

Pay two years’ rent for 4.5 million households (4,528,000 households) . Cost = £72.1 billion OR

Pay for 68% of the budget for the NHS in England Cost = £81.6 billion
Pay for 4 years of adult social care in England . Cost = £78.8 billion.

This totally unearned bonanza needs justifying somehow. It arises merely from the structure of wealth ownership, tax laws, and property holdings. The beneficiaries had to do little beyond what they currently own or do to enjoy this largesse.

One justification for the support of the current social structure of wealth ownership and control is that these people pay in absolute terms a good deal of tax. If you are destitute at least you don’t pay tax. Consider however that if one paid tax on income on say, £1,000,000, under current tax rates you would still get £540,676 per year. You pay nearly 44% of your income.

The median in the U.K. in 2017 is £27,000. Thus you take home £21, 641. You pay 20% of your income. You take home 4% of what the high earner does.

The millionaire pays as much tax in one year (£458,000) as a the median earner would (£5,200 pa) in 88 years. This is of course ‘inequality’.

So for every 1 person receiving £1,000,000, you’d need 88 on the median. Impossible of course due to what median means. The top 1000 get, receive, not ‘earn’, considerably more than what to them what would be a miserable £1,000,000 pa.

Those who earn up to the £150,000 threshold of 40% take home £90,176. Each extra pound they then get is taxed at 45%. What if that tax rate was 90%? This would mean someone getting £200,000 would receive £90,176 up to the £150,000 threshold and then another £5,000 taking it to £95,176. Someone getting £1,000,000 would after tax get £90,176 + £98,500 = £188,676.

The price of a loaf of bread would be the same.

So even at 90% marginal tax rates over the threshold, a millionaire would not have to worry about paying utility bills. Yes they pay more tax, but what’s left for them is hardly destitution. I digress. Millionaires to the 0.01% are paupers. Billionaires can avoid paying any taxes at all.

A second justification is that they are the ‘wealth creators’ and so deserve it all. I will not unpick this here because the rebuff is as obvious as the claim is spurious.

A third justification is that changing this structure would lead to economic chaos and left wing totalitarianism. This sets up a false dichotomy of either keeping hold of wealth or descent into tyranny.

A fourth justification is that the wealthy need to get ‘rewarded’ as they operate in a competing market, and that pay rates merely reflects market forces at work? Well, indeed but should that really be a plea to hold on to vast amounts of wealth? Are you really saying that you are miffed because someone else gets £5,000,000 pa while you get a ‘paltry’ £2,000,000 ?

There is a fifth technical justification – the Laffer Curve:

“In economics, the Laffer curve is a representation of the relationship between rates of taxation and the resulting levels of government revenue. Proponents of the Laffer curve claim that it illustrates the concept of taxable income elasticity—i.e., taxable income will change in response to changes in the rate of taxation.

The Laffer curve postulates that no tax revenue will be raised at the extreme tax rates of 0% and 100% and that there must be at least one rate which maximizes government taxation revenue. The Laffer curve is typically represented as a graph which starts at 0% tax with zero revenue, rises to a maximum rate of revenue at an intermediate rate of taxation, and then falls again to zero revenue at a 100% tax rate. The shape of the curve is uncertain and disputed.

One implication of the Laffer curve is that increasing tax rates beyond a certain point will be counter-productive for raising further tax revenue. A hypothetical Laffer curve for any given economy can only be estimated and such estimates are controversial. The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics reports that estimates of revenue-maximizing tax rates have varied widely, with a mid-range of around 70%. Generally, economists have found little support for the claim that tax cuts from current rates increase tax revenues or that most taxes are on the side of the Laffer curve where additional cuts could increase government revenue.

Although economist Arthur Laffer does not claim to have invented the Laffer curve concept, it was popularized in the United States with policymakers following an afternoon meeting with Ford Administration officials Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in 1974 in which he reportedly sketched the curve on a napkin to illustrate his argument.”

See: Laffer Curve

If all else fails, fall back on classic economic models which are of course nothing more than mathematical representations of actual human behaviour in particular social and political contexts. They do not operate like the laws of physics. Hence they can easily change given different contexts.

With these vacuous and self serving justifications, the 1% keep the status quo going. Every society needs a unifying myth, and the powerful 1% need one even more so. Monarchy, Nation State, and ‘Free Market’ Capitalism (note: not financial/rentier/crony capitalism) are used as unifying myths to merely cover wealth and privilege. It is why right wing politics intuitively support monarchy, church and the flag because if those are dismissed by critics then that only leaves the theory of free market neoliberal capitalism as a defence against ‘the underclass’.

You decide if this level of wealth appropriation is good for social cohesion and health inequalities.

Public Health and Health Inequalities: why is progress so slow?

Public Health and Health Inequalities: why is progress so slow?

 

This is one question contained in the 2009 report: Learning Lessons from the past: Shaping a Different Future written by the Marmot Review Working Committee 3 – Cross-cutting sub group report. (November 2009).  Hunter D, Popay J, Tannahill C, Whitehead M and Elson T.

The Marmot Review was published in the following year 2010. ‘Fair Society Healthy Lives’ described a mass of data on inequalities in health. A key concept was the ‘social gradient’ which suggests that one’s social position indicates one’s health outcomes at every point on the scale of socio economic status. It thus affects everyone.

The Social Gradient

http://www.who.int/social_determinants/thecommission/finalreport/key_concepts/en/

 

Hunter et al’s (2009) paper considered sources of evidence for ‘Fair Society’ and asked why better progress has not been made to reduce health inequalities and to suggest clear messages about the way forward.

 

  1. Why has better progress not been made? 4 key issues:

 

  • Delivery Mechanisms
  • Lifestyle Drift
  • Government handling of policy
  • Power, Knowledge and Influence.

 

1a. Delivery Mechanisms

 

  1. Delivery of public services and aspects of change has been based on a certain approach. This is the ‘rational linear change model’ which is both reductionist and mechanistic.
  2. This approach is also been driven from the centre.

 

The rational linear change model, is a process for making logically sound decisions. This multi-step approach aims to be logical and follow the orderly linear path from problem identification through to solution:  Problem: obesity. Cause: overeating. Solution: eat less, move more.

Reductionism means that the whole problem is broken down into reducible parts. Obesity can be broken down into its various elements and we can reduce it to a problem of over eating based on the simplistic notion of ‘calories in must equal energy expenditure’.

Mechanistic refers to the idea that one part of a mechanical system is easily affected in a ‘cause-affect’ way by another. This tinkering with a part of the system will produce observable and predictable results. So tinkering with the ‘calories in’ part of the mechanical system should produce weight loss outcomes:  ‘Eat less = lose weight’.

The centre includes central government departments such as the Department of Health. The tendency is to impose policy onto the NHS and front line staff. So an example of central policy is ‘Change 4 life’ or ‘Make every contact count’

1b. Failure of this approach to reduce health inequalities:

The Foresight Report (2007) on obesity identified the ‘obesogenic environment’. Therefore simple solutions (reductionist and mechanistic) such as targeting obese individuals with messages about eating less and moving more is only a small part of the solution. Foresight suggests there is no simple or single solution that works in a cause-effect way. ‘Change 4 life’ which focuses on individual lifestyle changes and behaviour changes will not be enough. This fails to engage with Foresight’s ‘whole systems approach’. Obesity has to be seen as a result of an interrelationship of factors (e.g. power relationships, poverty, employment). If responses are too narrow, focusing on individual lifestyle, the outcome will be failure.

The Economist Intelligence Unit published ‘Confronting Obesity in Europe. Taking action to change the default setting.’ (2015). It outlines the failures of such approaches. It accepts lifestyle and behaviour change programmes ‘are crucial’ but also frames obesity as a medical condition, note, not a socio-political one.  It also suggests that no European country has a comprehensive strategy for dealing with obesity. It quotes Zoe Griffith (of Weight Watchers):

“Education in schools , availability of healthy eating and restriction on marketing to children will go a long way towards resetting our society, but what they are completely ignoring is the majority of the population who are overweight and obese need treatment. It’s a very complex political and policy making environment”.

For current UK and Ireland trends see Public Health England data here.

Are Nurses who focus only on lifestyle and behaviour change with their patients, and who do not critique this approach, and who are also unable to be critically reflexive about their own weight gain, part of the problem and not the solution? This brings us to ‘Lifestyle Drift’ approaches:


 

2 Lifestyle Drift

This is the tendency for policy initiatives, for example Foresight, to recognise the need to take action on the social determinants of health (upstream approaches) but which as they get implemented drift downstream to focus on individual lifestyle factors. The Economist Intelligence Unit report illustrates the complexity of inter related factors. It also then asserts that lifestyle and behaviour change are ‘crucial’ and then frames obesity also as medical condition, thereby medicalising a social and political issue in an overly reductionist manner. It acknowledges the complexity but drifts towards medical treatment, as well as lifestyle change. However it does acknowledge the need for creating an environment that ‘deters obesity’ within a comprehensive strategy that involves transport, food, agriculture and education.

Lifestyle drift tends to move policy implementation away from measures that address the social gradient concept to measures that target the most disadvantaged groups in an attempt to deal with issues such as smoking habits, food choices and exercise levels. As nurses work with individuals and families it is easy to see how lifestyle and behaviour change tools are attractive in their attempts to ‘make every contact count’. Taking action on the social determinants of health is more of a challenge for many clinically based nurses who work in secondary and primary care. This is because nurses often don’t have either conceptual tools of analysis or control over social and economic factors such as housing. That being said, their understanding of their own weight issues would also be far too narrow if based intellectually on a lifestyle and behaviour change approach.

In ‘Lethal but Legal’ Freudenberg (2014) argues that the most important and modifiable cause of health inequalities is the “triumph of a political and economic system that promotes consumption at the expense of health” (p viii). To address health inequalities requires “taking on the world’s most powerful corporations and their allies”. Similarly, Stuckler and Basu (2013) point to Government policy, specifically austerity, as a danger to public health. A question for nurses is to what extent do we recognise that it is the actions of powerful actors that shape the social and economic conditions that result in the social gradient? Lifestyle approaches do nothing at all to address this aspect.

Hunter et al then discuss government handling of policy to explore more reasons for poor progress. Nurses will have a marginal interest in this aspect at best, beyond noting that failures of outcome include the internal processes in and between government departments. Therefore we will move on to their fourth issue.

 

  1. Power, knowledge and influence.

 

There is a causal relationship between inequalities in health and the social, material, political and cultural inequalities of the social determinants of health. Scambler’s health assets approach argues that material health assets are paramount in determining health outcomes. His ‘Greedy Bastards Hypothesis’ asserts that health inequalities in Britain are first and foremost an unintended consequence of the ‘strategic’ behaviours at the core of the country’s capitalist-executive and power elite. This is where health gets political. The strategic behaviours include getting governments to reduce state regulation, tax, control, ownership and provision for public services in order to facilitate the transition to corporate ownership, provision and control of public goods such as health and education. These corporations include Mitie, Serco, GE, Virgin and Capita. They are currently negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment partnership (TTIP) between the US and the EU in order to make it easier to engage in business across the Atlantic. The TTIP will also allow corporations to sue national governments if they try to block renationalisation of health services, or if they engage in environmental or social regulations that is perceived to hurt business.

Scambler argues that the ‘capitalist class executive’ (CCE) are a core ‘cabal’ of financiers, CEOs and Directors of large and largely transnational companies, and rentiers. This ‘cabal’ has come to exercise a dominating influence over the state’s political elite including those in government. Quoting David Landes, Scambler suggests:

“men of wealth buy men of power” who then enact state policy which supports their activities and interests.

 

An example is Sir Philip Green’s handling of the BHS sale and the resulting shortfall in worker’s pension funds. It is argued that both Green and the new owner ran BHS for their own ends with little attention paid to the affect on 22,000 people working on relatively low incomes who now face a drop in pension income.

Evidence that corporate activities impacts on political decision making is provided by the delays to air pollution standards, Euro 6 (Archer, 2015; Neslen, 2015).  Volkswagen’s use of software to cheat emissions testing in the United States (Topham, 2015) indicates the lengths corporates will go to avoid externality costs resulting in the externality of, for example, increased air pollution.

Hunter et al argue that genuine redistribution of power and resources are required to address health inequalities. This reflects the WHO’s definition of the social determinants of health. They argue that policies aimed at wealth creation result in inequalities in social status and health, the latter is the price to be paid for wealth creation. This is commonly seen in justifications that argue that health, education and social security can only be paid for if the UK economy grows. Health inequalities that result from wider inequalities, and in keeping with lifestyle drift responses, are seen as the result of individual failure and behaviours, what Sandra Carlisle refers to as the ‘moral underclass thesis’ for health inequalities. This is allowed to occur because:

  1. The UK is a class divided society
  2. Behavioural Explanations support the idea of class division
  3. Public spaces for debate have declined, this contributes to the lack of a shared narrative and collective action. It allows the demonization of the working class via ‘Chav’ tropes.
  4. Political action has not allowed public engagement in decision making sufficiently to address the balance of power.

 

Conclusions:

 

To address health inequalities there is a need to consider:

 

  • Health Inequalities are a ‘wicked problem’.
  • Alternatives to the market model.
  • Social movements for change.
  • Current economic and political circumstances.

 

Wicked problems are such that there are no easy quick solutions, we need to understand that such issues as obesity result from a complex interplay of systems that is not always amenable to simple analyses and interventions. Telling people to eat better and move more clearly does not work.

Using ‘the market’ to address health is inadequate. People do not respond to price signals in the rational way that market theory expects, markets also rely on a balance of information between parties for equity to prevail and markets often ignore power imbalances and the rigging of such markets. The market in food and exercise regimes for example is skewed towards vested interests and the profit margin. Companies claim that in a market it is up to the consumer to make choices thus providing market information. The theory is that if we all shun sugar based foodstuffs the market would reflect those choices and companies would change business practices to suit.

There may be a need for social movements ‘from below’ to change powerful vested interests who profit from current economic structures and who also focus on the extremes of health (the obese rather than the overweight) for interventions. People are ‘free’ to make their own societies but not in the circumstances of their own choosing. Individualised responses cannot address those wider determinants of health.

The politics of ‘personal responsibility for health’ in the context of economic structures in which it is said “there is no money” for health and social services because the public debt has to be reduced requires challenging. For three decades a ‘hands off neoliberal approach’ to all social and political issues has been argued as the only approach. Public services have been privatised and marketised as if this is the only way to provide services.

 

Hunter et al conclude by arguing:

  • We need to debate redistribution and the type of society we wish to live in.
  • We need sustained resistance to lifestyle drift.
  • We need to resist silo based working.
  • We need to resist policy aimed only at ‘low lying fruit’ – the easy wins.

“the only way to achieve lasting reductions in inequality is to address society’s imbalances with regard to power, income, social support and knowledge…implement upstream policy interventions….supported by downstream interventions. ” (Priority Public Health Conditions Task group 8)

 

Poverty Privilege and Health

In two of the richest nations ever to have existed on planet earth we have a separation which allows affluent whites to exist in a bubble of privilege; a bubble of privilege which survives the shooting of police, deindustrialisation, poverty, precarity and the social gradient in health. Privilege understands and sees how radical losers exploit poverty and exclusion, but does not want to address social and economic structures; privilege understands that pain and anger can be turned both inward and outward but looks for solutions in the individual and ‘security’; privilege sees the transmission of poverty and exclusion only in the personal agency of the poor themselves.

Washington Heights is a suburb of the most segregated city in America. Charles lives in a part of Milwaukee where the residents are 99% white, yet a few blocks up are black neighbourhoods where shops are boarded up, many houses have repossession notices on their front doors, and the air is one of decay and poverty. The separation of black and white in Milwaukee is replicated in big cities right across the US, and separation breeds a lack of empathy.”

“Local authorities which report the highest rates of people facing severe and multiple disadvantage are mainly in the North of England, seaside towns and certain central London boroughs”

“Women who live in the least deprived parts of Kensington & Chelsea can expect almost a quarter of a century more of good health than their female counterparts in the most deprived part of the borough. For females at birth, the number of years an individual could expect to live in good health based on current rates – known as healthy life expectancy – differed by an average of 24.6 years between the most and least deprived parts of the borough” (ONS, 2015)

…and yet politicians like to focus on a ‘moral underclass’, blaming them for their behaviour that causes poverty. Drink and drugs are key factors in this regard:

“Ian Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, shocked readers of the Daily Mail with: ‘Addicts and alcoholics cost us £10billion a year, says Duncan Smith: Blitz launched to help people with drink drug problems find work’ “. (Glen Bramley LSE Blog)

There is a very old debate about whether poor people owe their circumstances to structural economic factors or to moral/behavioural failings. Sandra Carlisle in 2001 argued that there are ‘contested explanations, shifting discourses and ambiguous policies’  for health inequalities: there is the ‘Moral Underclass’ discourse, the ‘Social Integrationist’ Discourse and the ‘Redistrubutive’ discourse. Each has its own explanation as to why there are inequalities and then what to do about them.

Since Sandra Carlisle wrote her paper, there has been a a good deal of evidence to suggest that structural/economic forces are a major factor in people’s health and illness. There is some evidence also of ‘transmitted poverty‘ due to adverse childhood experiences. The misuse of Alcohol and Illegal substances (they are all drugs) are of course correlated:

“There is a huge overlap between the offender, substance misusing and homeless populations. For example, two thirds of people using homeless services are also either in the criminal justice system or in drug treatment in the same year”.

Many people faced with adverse social situations learn to cope, or they become fatalistic,  or they cling together in supportive communities or they become activists fighting for social justice.  Some self harm, some drink to excess, some go to University and become doctors or lawyers or politicians.  They exercise their personal agency and succeed or fail within structurally determined circumstances. They succeed, despite not because of, the activities and ideology of the privileged. A few of the successful however, then refuse to provide more ladders while shouting “I did it so can you”.

The lack of empathy, the total separation of lifeworlds, arises partly from moral intuitions that both blinds many politicians and commentators to alternative explanations pf poverty and binds them together in a bubble of privilege that prevents them from analysing the evidence. As we all do, they engage in post hoc rationalisations – in their case that that the poor are a moral underclass who are less intelligent, lazy, and hard working than the successful – to explain and justify their own positions.  This is almost a moral imperative, because not to blame the poor opens one up to the need to justify or critique the structural and economic privileges one has unequal access to. Placing the focus on the work, drinking and drug taking habits of a ‘moral underclass’ provides one with a sense of superiority and entitlement so much on show in both US and UK politics. No doubt the same occurs in Russia and China. To acknowledge that there are structural and economic conditions, for example the public school system or the service sector low wage economies,  or the inverse care law, opens up the middle class to accusations of champagne socialism.

This is a common tactic to deflect the argument away from an examination of causes to one of ‘ad hominem’.  Another tactic is to argue that the best way to address structural and economic factors is more of the same economic policies that have held sway especially in the US and UK. Indeed on a global scale the numbers of people living in absolute poverty is decreasing. Inequality is also decreasing with in the UK (gini coefficient). However these two factors are not the only issue.  Both the UK and the US are rich and other measures of inequality have increased, see for example the use of the Palma ratio. It matters greatly for very poor people to get incomes, and mortality rates, enjoyed by the poor in the UK and the US, but that is not enough as the social, health and political problems in both countries testify.

Privilege looks around and is satisfied knowing that the ‘have nots’ only have themselves to blame. They reach for the moral underclass theory and publish it relentlessly in their newspapers and commentary. They also have the wealth and political power to ensure this ideology is accepted by the poor themselves. However, many do not. In this context:

The losers get sick.

The losers get poor.

The losers get defeated.

The losers get mad.

The losers get even.

‘Many professions take losers as the object of their studies and as the basis for their existence. Social psychologists, social workers, nurses, doctors, social policy experts, criminologists, therapists and others who do not count themselves among the losers would be out of work without them. But with the best will in the world, their clients remains obscure to them: their empathy knows clearly-defined professional bounds’ (Enzensberger 2005). Enzensberger (2005) goes on to argue:

‘one thing is certain: the way humanity has organized itself – “capitalism”, “competition”, “empire”, “globalisation” – not only does the number of losers increase every day, but as in any large group, fragmentation soon sets in. In a chaotic, unfathomable process, the cohorts of the inferior, the defeated, the victims separate out. The loser may accept his fate and resign himself; the victim may demand satisfaction; the defeated may begin preparing for the next round. But the radical loser isolates himself, becomes invisible, guards his delusion, saves his energy, and waits for his hour to come’.

Shoots a Policeman, drives a truck through a crowd, blows himself up in an airport…..all the while privilege looks on in dumb uncomprehending horror calling for more security and economic crackdowns on the moral underclass upon whom the often middle class radical loser preys.

Inequality, the Gini coefficient, does it matter?

Inequality (Income) and the Gini Coefficient.

(picture of global GC by Kurzon (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

On 16th April 2016 The RSA held a discussion called the ‘Inequality debate’ which posed the question ‘is growing Inequality a price worth paying for London’s continued economic success?’ The panel largely answered in the negative but Mark Littlewood, Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, questioned the accepted fact of inequality arguing that income inequality as measured by the gini coefficient (GC) has not increased in the UK.

This was an interesting point because it challenges much of the debate around social inequalities and health inequalities. Littlewood’s point is correct, but irrelevant, due to issues with the sensitivity of the GC, other measures of inequality and other dimensions of inequality for example  of health (Marmot 2010).

 

Gini Coefficient and the Palma ratio

The coefficient is between 0, where everyone earns the same, and 1, where one person earns all the money.

 

In 2012-13, the UK’s Gini score for income inequality was 0.332, as measured by the Office for National Statistics (Figure 1). Individual cities vary in their equality – London is the most unequal, as measured by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, while Sunderland is the most equal.

 

However, it has been critiqued for not being sensitive enough at the extreme ends of the scale. It does not capture changes in the top 10% or the bottom 40% where most of the poverty lies. Sumner and Cobham have put forward the Palma ratio. If the top 10% has 5 times the income of the bottom 40% the ratio is 5.

 

Larry Elliot (2017 see link below) argues: “The ONS’s estimate of the Gini coefficient comes from its annual publication The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income (ETB). This shows that inequality peaked at around 0.37 at the end of the 1980s, was still at around 0.35 in the mid-2000s, and has fallen to around 0.32, according to the latest available data.Turn to the DWP and it is a different story. The Gini coefficient is higher than it is according to the ONS (0.35 before housing costs) and on an upward trend.”

In 2013 David Cameron also suggested that inequality was at its lowest level since the 1980’s again supported by the ONS measure of the GC.

 

So we both the prime minister and a director of a think-tank (the IEA) downplaying inequality in public.

 

The IEA published a blog Almost everything the left tells you about inequality is wrong by Ryan Bourne (12th April 2016). Bourne uses the ONS “Effects of taxes and incomes on household income” to argue that the gini coefficient has not exceeded its 1990 level. Income inequality went down largely due to the stagnation of incomes while the rich got relatively poorer than the poor. This indeed indicates an issue with using income inequality as measured by the GC to say much about inequality itself. Income inequality would fall if the top become poorer relative to the bottom but of course in absolute terms would remain far richer. Bourne then points out that it was the top 1% who experienced an income rise, especially the top 0.01%, a point noted by Danny Dorling who argues that it is the 0.01% we should be examining. This is the weakness of the gini coefficient in that it is not sensitive enough to address the 0.01%. Although the income of the top 10% remained unchanged, it is those in the 10% but outside the 1% who saw income fall.

 

As for incomes, Gabriel Palma argues that 50% of gross national income is captured by deciles 5-9, the other 50% is shared between the top 1 decile and the bottom 1-4. He used a data set from the World Development Indicators (135 countries) to argue that there are two forces at work: centrifugal meaning increasing diversity between the top 10% and the bottom 40% and centripetal meaning a growing uniformity of income share within the middle 50%.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies produced a more nuanced discussion than that presented by Littlewood of the IEA and pointed out that the GC was only one measure. Others include the 50/10, 90/50 and 99/90 ratios (figure 3). These are decile ratios so for example 90/50 is the ratio of income at the 90th percentile divided by the level of income at the 50th percentile, the higher the number the greater the inequality. The IFS confirms that within the 1% the incomes of the richest has grown fastest with income growth at 99.9th percentile even higher than at the 99th.

Reasons, say the IFS include:

  • Increases in the financial returns of education ( a wage premium of higher education).
  • Trade liberalisation.
  • Tax and Welfare policy
  • Employment patterns.

 

Top incomes are racing away, which might reflect globalisation and international labour mobility for ‘global stars’ coupled with the erosion of social norms regarding the acceptability of pay differentials. The IFS argue that evidence for these assertions is not yet forthcoming. Nonetheless the top 0.01% are racing away for whatever reason.

Fedirico Cingano (OECD 2014) reports in Trends in income Inequality and its Impact on economic growth that the gap between rich and poor in most OECD countries is at its highest level for 30 years. The top 10% earn 9.5 times the income of the bottom 10%. In the 1980s this ratio was 7:1. He writes;

“econometric analysis suggests that income inequality has a negative and statistically significant impact on subsequent growth” in the OECD. Also:

“In particular, what matters most is the gap between low income households and the rest of the population. In contrast, no evidence is found that those with high incomes pulling away from the rest of the population harms growth”.

Income of course is not the only inequality, we also need to consider:

  • Health
  • Educational attainment
  • Wealth
  • Land ownership
  • CEO pay and employee pay
  • Housing
  • Consumption

 

Inequality is a complex concept and care has to be taken when discussing it. There is a mass of data on the subject for example the equality trust publish data from several sources, but there is no doubt about the scale of inequality in the UK. Does it matter? For those of a neoliberal persuasion, no it does not. In fact, inequality is good because for them it provides incentives and rewards hard work. The rich should be lauded as tax heroes. For others, such as Wilkinson and Pickett, inequality not only harms those at the bottom, it harms everyone in society by eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness and encouraging excessive consumption.

 

 

Update 2017: Income inequality is getting wider. If the stats count what counts.

https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/dec/03/income-inequality-is-getting-wider-if-the-stats-count-what-counts

 

 

 

 

How responsible am I for my health 2

How responsible am I for my health?

 

The answer to that question from the dominant discourse is an overwhelming “very”.

This response sits alongside more scholarly understandings of the social determinants of health.  This ‘upstream’ understanding is open to ‘Lifestyle Drift’ , ‘downstream’, responses to health. Lifestyle Drift is:

“the tendency for policy to start off recognizing the need for action on upstream social determinants of health inequalities only to drift downstream to focus largely on individual lifestyle factors” (Popay et al 2010)

McKenzie et al (2016) argue:

“Although policy documents may state that the causes of poor health or inequalities in health are to do with poverty and deprivation, the interventions which actually operate on the ground focus much less (if at all) on changing people’s material circumstances and rather more on trying to change behaviours (which are in fact heavily shaped by material circumstances)”.

Nurses might understand the concept of the social gradient in health inequalities but drift into advocating lifestyle changes for the individual, centring around smoking, diet, and exercise messages.

So why is this happening? Why resort to lifestyle approaches to health when we know health is largely socially and politically determined?

 

One answer is that lifestyle answers fit within the neoliberal social imaginary which individualises health and social problems and seeks market solutions to those problems. Neoliberalism is a doctrine well known to many scholars and academics but is hardly mentioned in popular discourse.  To understand responses to health inequalities and poverty , we need to understand the tenets of neoliberalism underpinning much of current thinking:

 

  • Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. Therefore competition between service providers should be introduced into the NHS.
  • It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. So patients can and should choose between hospitals and GP practices as consumers of health care using their purchasing power (not yet realised in the NHS). This way, poor service providers should go out of business.
  • It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning. Therefore NHS = bad, US private health insurance = good; BBC = bad,  SKY/Fox = good;  British Rail = bad, Great Western/Virgin = good; Royal Mail (state owned) = bad, Royal Mail (privately owned) = good.
  • Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Thus socialised NHS service provision must be broken up to allow freedom in the market. The BBC must be sold off because it is unfair competition for Sky.
  • Tax and regulation should be minimised, thus the use of offshore tax havens, reduction in top rate of tax, mistrust of EU environmental standards and hatred of health and safety regulations.
  • Public services should be privatised. The Health and Social Care Act 2012 facilitates this, there may well be more to come for the NHS.
  • The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions, that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Unison, RCN, BMA etc, must have their power curtailed. The Junior doctors cannot be allowed to win or else it will be a victory for organised labour.
  • Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Those at the bottom require incentives to better themselves, therefore benefits need cutting, those in the middle will benefit from wealth creation.
  • Efforts to create a more equal society are both counter-productive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve. The arguments from books such as ‘The Spirit Level’ are therefore irrelevant. If there is a social gradient in health then this is the natural outcome of people’s decisions and choices and any attempt to change this invokes  ‘moral hazard’ arguments; that is if people know they have a safety net (someone else takes the risk) they will not try to avoid poor choices.

(Monbiot 2016 The Zombie Doctrine)

 

 

 

Tory Rituals on poverty:

 

 

·         Blame the individual for their illness and poverty.

·         Benefits cause dependency , repeat this ad nauseam.

·         Deny any political responsibility for ill health, emphasise culture as causative.

·         Divide population into:  skivers v strivers, deserving v undeserving poor, low achievers v high achievers.

·         Deny the ‘social’ exists, there are only individuals

·         Privilege wealth through tax breaks and preferential treatment.

·         Deny one’s own privilege as a white affluent male.

 

 

These attitudes underpin the ideology of neoliberalism.

 

For a statement about what the Conservative Party should be about see:Direct Democracy – an agenda for a new model party’ (2005) especially the chapter on health:

 

 

“The problem with the NHS is not one of resources. Rather, it is that the system remains a centrally run, state monopoly, designed over half a century ago”.

 

 

 

All of this results in the politics of blame and shifting responsibility for health fully onto individuals.

If material health assets are paramount, poverty and our response to it is a foundation for understanding health in society. Poverty can be defined as 60% of the median income or using the ‘consensual method’  it is “enforced lack of necessities determined by public opinion”.

However, the UK government’s position is that poverty is not caused by lack of income. Based on Charles Murray’s idea of the ‘Culture of Poverty’, poverty is a result of individual deficits, as Kitty Jones writes:

“the poor have earned their position in society, the poor deserve to be poor because this is a reflection of their lack of qualities, poor character and level of abilities”.

Kitty Jones has written clearly on this issue in 3 blogs, which can be found here.

The alternative view, expressed in for example the ‘Greedy Bastards Hypothesis’ is that poverty, and health inequalities, is caused by the rich, often through unintended consequences of their actions but also through design. It results from structural socio economic conditions that neoliberal governments encourage: for example, low wages, withdrawal of benefit provision and the use of offshore tax regimes. Osborne’s ‘living wage’ is a cynical political manoeuvre designed to woo middling swing voters rather than to address structural economic issues such as under and unemployment , lack of investment in a green economy, deficits in the housing stock and affordability and a zero hours, self employed precarious job structure.

 

Nurses offering health advice, are not immune to this dominant discourse. It suffuses health advice on such sites as NHS choices and is supported by health campaigns which focus on changing individual habits. Action on social inequalities as root causes for ill health sits within specialised public health literature, for example ‘Fair Society,  Healthy Lives’, and unless nurses are exposed to an alternative perspective they will naturally draw upon dominant explanations for health inequalities. These are often either biologically/hereditarian explanations* or a ‘moral underclass discourse’ (Ruth Levitas) or a mix of the two. The politics of neoliberalism encourages the latter perspective.

 

 

Benny Goodman 2016

 

*See Chapter 4 in Psychology and Sociology in Nursing  Goodman 2015 for explanations.

Watch Richard Wilkinson discuss inequalities at a TED talk.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/Sociologyhealthnursing/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choose your parents

Alejandro Nieto.

Bernal Heights. San Francisco.

What has the death of a young man, shot by four police officers in a park in California got to do with with understanding health outcomes in the United Kingdom?

Mary Sue and Miriam. Two women born at similar times whose grandparents came from the same small town in the United States. One will be going to an Ivy League University while the other struggles with drugs and hopelessness writing on her Facebook page ‘Love hurts, Trust is dangerous’.

What links them is that Alejandro and Mary Sue ‘chose the wrong parents’, while Miriam chose wisely, a Harvard professor for a grandfather (Robert Putnam), and University educated parents.

Their cases illustrate that health and well being is ‘structured but not determined’, that to truly understand their life chances we have to consider the transformations in society that impact on the choices made and opportunities open to individuals and their families.

Alejandro was born to Mexican immigrants who came to San Francisco in the 1970’s. His mother worked all her life while his father took on most of the child care duties. San Francisco has a history of immigrants from other parts of the US as well as from elsewhere. Being Hispanic in California is ‘normal’ but not to the white, male, educated tech engineers from Silicon Valley who have moved to the area en mass ushering in gentrification and myopia. Alejandro was described to the Police as probably ‘foreign’ who had a gun, his red jacket marking him out as a gang member. All of this was supposition and assumption. Alejandro had lived in Bernal Heights all of his life, the gun was a taser, carried because he worked as a security guard. His red jacket was a sports jacket, the colour of the local sports team the 49’ers. Those doing the describing were white tech engineers making assumptions about behaviour. Indeed, Alejandro was holding a taser, but he had just been harassed by a dog barking and jumping up at him to get at his chips. The dog owner was 40 feet away, distracted by a ‘jogger’s butt’ and unable to keep his dog under control.

The police arrived, and shot him, one unloading over 20 bullets and had to reload.

Alejandro, Mary Sue and Miriam live at a time when the United States is experiencing growing inequalities in wealth, segregation in its communities, family instability and a collapse of both good working class jobs now being followed by a squeeze on middle class opportunities. While the wealth of the 1% has increased based on their increased share of wealth being created – they are getting an even bigger slice of the pie, working class incomes have stagnated. Mary Sue’s grandfather used to have a decent income from a solidly working class job, now gone leaving ‘flexible’, low paid insecure work.

As economies restructure, as cities adapt to new social conditions, people experience changing social structures that enhance or diminish their chances. The white Ivy League tech engineers are likely to know only other white Ivy Leaguers, to come from Ivy League parents, went to the same schools and know only their own kind in a networked bubble of privilege, social myopia and self satisfying smugness. They don’t know the ‘other’ and can thus label a sports fan as a gang member with in this case lethal consequences.

Perhaps representing their views:

“I know people are frustrated about gentrification happening in the city, but the reality is, we live in a free market society. The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it. I shouldn’t have to worry about being accosted. I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day.”

 

So ‘free market society’ justifies the breakdown of community, segregation, inequality, fear and mistrust. Wealth is ‘earned’ rather than a result of circumstances (right time, right family, right ethnicity, right gender, right neighbourhood, right education, right opportunities and often the inheritance of not only financial but social and cultural capital). Indeed, no one should have be be accosted, no one should see pain and struggle and despair, but don’t blame the victims of unjust social, political and economic systems. Don’t blame the dog for barking when someone’s kicked it.

Alejandro’s ‘personal trouble’ (being shot) is now a public issue. When only one young man is shot by police, we might consider the character of the man and look to him as an individual for reasons and solutions. When hundreds of young men are being shot by police this individual analysis is no longer useful, we must look to social structures, to link personal stories to this point in time in this particular society.

Miriam can look forward to a bright future, she experienced great parenting, great education backed up of course by well resourced material assets. Mary Sue, is a single parent with no education, self harm, a drug habit and abusive partners. Her child will very probably not go to Harvard. Alejandro made the mistake of being born Hispanic and thus a potential threat to the White denizens of a newly gentrified neighbourhood.

If you are struggling to apply this to the UK context, you don’t know the truth and you lack the ‘sociological imagination’.

Alejandro’s story is in Rebecca Solnit ‘Death by Gentrification’. Opinion. The Guardian. March 22nd 2016.
Mary Sue and Miriam’s story is in a talk by Robert Putnam to the RSA in London, March 2015, on ‘Inequality and the Opportunity Gap’. https://www.thersa.org/discover/videos/event-videos/2015/10/robert-putnam-on-inequality-and-opportunity/#

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