Socialist Worker

Health gulf 'like Victorian times'

by Hazel Croft
Issue No. 1732

These Victorian slums in Poplar, east London, capture the image many of us have of the time in the 19th century when Britain was most divided between rich and poor. But those who live in the same streets today face the same level of inequality as their Victorian predecessors.

A recent study in the doctors' authoritative British Medical Journal (BMJ) compared poverty, inequality and ill health today with the famous study of poverty in London by Charles Booth at the end of the 19th century. Booth's Life and Labour of the People of London was a savage indictment of the squalor, misery and deprivation among the poor in Victorian Britain. But a whole century later, says the BMJ article, the health and wealth divide is just as stark in London.

The same gulf between the health of rich and poor can be found in every major city in Britain. Booth produced a detailed map of the spread of poverty in London, which classified poverty street by street and building by building. Pattern

A map of London from the 1991 census, which covered the same areas, almost exactly reproduces the pattern of poverty. Despite slum clearances, the Blitz of the Second World War and endless promises of reform from governments throughout the 20th century, the rich areas have remained rich and the poor areas have remained poor. And the poorer the area you live in, the more likely you are to die an early death.

The poor are still more likely to die early, and suffer more illness and disease, despite better sanitation, housing and diet, and the creation of the NHS. In the 21st century, as in the 19th, unemployment, damp and overcrowded housing, poor diet, long working hours and job insecurity destroy people's health. The BMJ study shows that the link between poverty and the likelihood of suffering coronary heart disease, strokes, cardiovascular disease, pneumonia, lung and stomach cancer has barely changed since Booth's study. Amazingly, the study also finds that the way Booth measured poverty can more accurately predict who today will die early from diseases such as strokes and stomach cancer than modern methods.

As the study concludes, 'One hundred years of policy initiatives have had almost no impact on patterns of inequality in inner London, and on the relationship between people's socio-economic position and their relative chances of dying.' The New Labour government today claims it is tackling the poverty which leads to ill health.

But, as one of the study's authors, Danny Dorling, has commented, 'despite pledging to reduce poverty, the current Labour administration have clearly reneged on both their commitments regarding health made before the election as well as reneging on much of what key cabinet ministers wrote and said in the past.'

There needs to be a massive redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor to even begin to redress such fundamental inequalities. New Labour refuses to redistribute wealth even in a limited way by raising direct taxes on the rich.

Moreover, poverty and inequality are built into heart of the capitalist system. The poor are poor not because of their own fecklessness and failures, but precisely because the rich are rich. The shocking results of this study should give us all more ammunition in the fight against capitalism.


New Labour failing to bridge gap

New Labour is making health one of its big issues for the general election. It froze spending at Tory levels for the first two years of its government. The government boasts that it is increasing health spending by 6.1 percent a year over the next four years. But this still leaves Britain trailing behind the average spent on health across Europe.

After four years Britain will spend 7.6 percent of Gross Domestic Product on health. That is still below today's European average of 8 percent, let alone what the average will be in four years time.

According to the King's Fund charity, Blair should have increased health spending by 9.7 percent a year for five years to match the European average. Moreover, the government is creating even greater health inequalities by pushing through the most extensive privatisation of the NHS ever. The new 'concordat' with the private sector means using public money to buy private beds at the commercial rate.

The Private Finance Initiative (PFI) is also pouring public money into the hands of giant firms like Amec and Balfour Beatty by butchering health services. This will hit the poorest patients the hardest.

Private firms are demolishing city centre hospitals and replacing them with shoddily built, smaller, inaccessible hospitals which will be run for profit. Even the government admits every £200 million spent on PFI means the loss of 1,000 doctors and nurses.

Each PFI scheme so far has led to the slashing of 30 percent of beds and staff cuts of 20 percent. Ancillary staff are being sold off like cattle to the private consortia, which want to squeeze them even more to increase their profit margins. But PFI has met with resounding opposition. Hospital workers in Dudley have put two fingers up to the corporate fat cats and are striking against privatisation.

Their action has caught the mood of everyone who abhors the idea of Health Service plc, and is being cheered by thousands of workers around Britain. It is up to all of us to do everything we can in solidarity, and to help the workers win a victory against New Labour's attempt to sell the NHS to its big business pals.


The killer facts

Infant mortality is nearly FIVE TIMES higher in the poorest social group than in the top social group.

Life expectancy at birth is SEVEN YEARS longer for those classified in the top social group than for those in the poorest.

Children from the poorest social group are FIVE TIMES more likely to suffer from accidental death than those in the top social group.

Cases of tuberculosis (TB) in England and Wales rose by 20 percent between 1998 and 1999. Some 50 people develop TB every week in London and of these two will die.

Britain's health gap between rich and poor is as wide as Nigeria's and double that of Ethiopia's.


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Article information

Features
Sat 27 Jan 2001, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1732
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