Amelia Hodgson

“Today, the UK is a wealthy society. Yet a baby girl born in Richmond upon Thames is expected to live 17.8 more years in good health than a baby girl born in Manchester” published the Health Foundation in their What makes us health quick guide.

The differing health outcomes for those at either end of the socioeconomic scale are shocking. But, perhaps even more surprisingly, it is not just the most vulnerable who suffer when living in unequal societies: inequality increases everyone’s risk of health and social problems. Even the richest are less healthy than they would be in more equal societies, and in the UK the gap is widening in terms of quality of life and life expectancy. Less equal societies ensure worse physical and mental health, live shorter lives, have greater levels of obesity, and higher levels of infant mortality. 

Health or wealth?

Rather than economic measures of a nation’s wealth, it is surely the population’s health and happiness that should be used as a barometer of our society’s success. As poor health is significantly determined by an individual’s circumstances at the point of birth, key changes need to be made to ensure that everyone has a chance for good health in life. Families, schools, communities, workplaces, and government all contribute to the foundation on which people shape their behaviours: all can contribute to positive changes. 

Adequate income is crucial. Beyond simply allowing people to buy appropriate healthy food, it makes people feel readier to invest in a healthier future, rather than simply ‘firefight’ the more immediate issues of survival like paying rent and bills. A genuine living wage is therefore essential to ensure people have the requisite mental availability to even think about leading healthier lives. 

Related to this, qualifications and employment are necessary to empower people. Government, schools and businesses should work together to ensure appropriate training is available with an emphasis on widening participation, to avoid early alienation from the job market. Occupational options should be explored early on within schools, including those beyond the academic route. 

Equal societies are critical to break the poor health cycle 

To increase social equality and subsequent health outcomes, every individual must have not just a house but a home. Every £1 invested in housing support provides nearly £2 of benefit by avoiding costs to public services like care, health and crime: nearly a 100% return on investment. Beyond the economic case, it should hardly need stating that homes should provide a space for people to be comfortable and thrive. To do so homes must be stable, warm, affordable, and safe. Easy access to green space is also key, with associated benefits of enabling physical activity, play, and connection to the local community. 

To enable societies to become more equal and for health outcomes to improve across the board, our society must become more equal. Living standards must improve and opportunities need to be available and relevant to all. As a minimum, this requires the provision of adequate income, opportunities for qualification and employment, and a good home environment. Only then can the poor health cycle be broken, freeing people to live healthier and happier lives.

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