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