Reducing poverty and inequality should be ‘urgent public health necessity’

Poverty is toxic to people’s mental and physical health, the Centre for Mental Health said.

25 July 2022

Reducing poverty and economic inequality in the UK should be an “urgent public health necessity” as these are “toxic” to mental and physical health, a report warns.

The Centre for Mental Health is sounding the alarm over a “public health emergency” that needs to be addressed by increasing the income and reducing costs of the least well-off.

Millions of people will suffer preventable harm and health and care services will be overwhelmed if poverty and deprivation keep deepening and worsening health continues, the think tank warned.

Its latest briefing paper – a review of existing research – said there is a “clear link” between poverty, adverse childhood events, poor wellbeing and mental health outcomes.

It said research has firmly established that poverty is linked to a higher risk of developing more than a dozen illnesses, while a fall in income is linked to declining mental health.

Policy-makers should prioritise reducing poverty, deprivation, and economic inequality “as an urgent public health necessity”, it says.

It reads: “If the current trajectory of deepening poverty and deprivation, widening economic inequality and worsening health continues, millions of people will suffer preventable harm and health and social care services will be overwhelmed by demand.

“This is a public health emergency that requires action to increase the incomes and reduce the costs of the most deprived 40% of the population.”

The briefing notes that Government measures during the coronavirus pandemic – including the furlough scheme and temporary increase to universal credit – “undoubtedly blunted” its economic impact and may have protected many people’s mental health during the lockdowns.

It is calling on the Government to increase the incomes of the poorest people by increasing benefits, ending the benefits cap and increasing the national minimum wage.

It could reduce costs for this group by building more energy-efficient social rent homes and extending free childcare, early years education, school meals and period products, it says.

Centre for Mental Health chief executive Dr Sarah Hughes said: “Poverty is toxic to our mental and physical health.

“As living costs rise and the wealth gap grows, it is vital that the next prime minister tackles poverty and financial inequality as a public health priority.

“It is also important for local councils, health services and businesses to do what they can to end poverty.”

Interim chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, said: “The cost-of-living crisis is harming people’s physical and mental health. Economic pressures are taking their toll and making longstanding health and racial inequalities even worse.

“Government action to address health disparities – a key priority for NHS trusts – is long overdue and ministers must tackle deep-rooted and wider causes of poor health, and help to close the gap in healthy life expectancy between people in well-off and deprived communities.

“Mental health services are doing all they can to provide the best possible care in the face of ever-growing demand.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We know work is the best route out of poverty and we’re focused on breaking down any barriers people may be facing on their journey into employment, including investing in childcare and boosting funding for mental health services by £2.3 billion. And our dedicated Work Coaches are helping families and individuals across the UK boost their incomes by getting into and progressing in work.

“We also recognise the effect being long-term unemployed can have on mental and physical health. That’s why we’re delivering 12 months of tailored support through our multi-billion pound Restart scheme, as well as committing over £1.3 billion in employment support to those with disabilities and those struggling with their mental health.

“Meanwhile, Universal Credit continues to deliver vital support for those both in and out of work and through our £37 billion support package to help the poorest in society with their bills, we’re allowing people on Universal Credit to keep £1,000 more of what they earn.”

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