Health Inequalities in Britain in the 21st Century

It is all over the News today following the publication of research in the British Medical Journal revealing that the health inequality gap between rich and poor is wider than it was 90 years ago. The research analysed the life expectancy of poor people and compared it with that of the wealthy. It found that the poor can expect to die, on average, 7 years earlier than the richest Britons.
During the decades of the 1920’s and 1930’s Britain suffered greatly following the First World War and the Great Depression. But afterwards the inequality gap began to close, probably due to the rise in manufacturing in poor areas, say the researchers: after the 1970’s this gap started to widen again.
The study shows that income directly affects life expectancy and that the area in which you live further exacerbates this. The results show that geographical inequalities in mortality are higher in the most recent decade than in any similar time period since 1921.
This research does not reflect kindly on the Labour Government’s time in office but I fear that health inequalities will worsen given the current Government’s plans. The researchers conclude that:
‘by treating the undoubted multidimensional contributors to health inequalities as though they act at the same level and by failing to prioritise the need to reduce the fundamental drivers of social inequality, the government’s commitments to reduce inequalities in mortality have been largely ineffective’
What is more worrying is that this widening of health inequalities was predicted in 1998 and yet very little has been done to address the social inequalities between the richest and poorest sectors of the country.
uk_poverty_graphic josephy rowntree
(Economic Inequalities Map)
So much of the news has covered the problem but I am more interested to know what exactly these inequalities constitute. Why do poorer people die 7 years earlier than richer people? We have free access to healthcare for all members of society, therefore lifestyle and social conditions must intensify health issues. The issue of low income is just one factor of many barriers restricting those living in poverty.
Poverty is a multidimensional process and not limited to lack of finance. Poverty also relates to, what are known as, various types of ‘capital’, or capabilities, and how much a person has of these ‘capitals’. For example someone living in poverty might be particularly ‘time poor’ and therefore health suffers accordingly. Or a person living in poverty may have a poor educational background and is restricted in the kind of work opportunities available. Another person may not have the same social networks that support or provide opportunities for other members of society; poorer people are less likely to lobby against cuts from the Government. All these circumstances can bind a group of people in poverty and thus lead to health inequalities.
Places where poor people live offer suffer with combinations of isolation, lack of infrastructure, lack of services, crime, and pollution. Couple this with the economic downturn, and the rise in unemployment we will see an even sharper increase in the widening of inequalities.
Further to this, inequalities relating to discrimination of certain groups, vulnerability of other groups and lack of empowerment for many poor groups of people, all contribute to inequality. Often exploitation and disempowerment go hand in hand in poorer areas.
According to the Get Fair campaign, 1 in 5 people in the UK live in poverty, whether we are in growth or recession. I think that it is a sorry state of affairs that we live in one of the richest countries in the world yet we are home to such large inequalities in our population. In light of all the proposed cuts from the new Government I doubt this statistic is likely to change.


  1. I enjoyed reading this piece (I almost did a degree in sociology but chose french and drama instead). i'm not surprised by these findings really. I have lived for over 20 years in France and have experienced both health care systems. It's very hard to generalise but I definitely think the French system is much better. However, as you said, this is a complex issue. People do not die earlier just because of the NHS. I'd love to know the life expectancy for poor/rich people here. How does the UK fare in comparison to other countries?

  2. I guess the HDI (Human Development Index)is an indication of life expectancies (as well as education and per capita GDP), with Norway, Iceland or Canada generally topping the list.

    In the 2009 report the UK came 21st with France, you probably won't be surprised, coming 8th.

    Of course the HDI has come under criticism too for the oversimplification of development but it is a useful indicator that large institutions like the World Bank, the UN and Governments like.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *