Dr Emma Stone, Director of Policy and Research, Joseph Rowntree Foundation
May 30, 2017
In the UK today, there are fourteen million people living in poverty. Poverty has a significant impact on people’s physical and mental health, puts immense strain on personal relationships, poses a range of impossible choices on a daily basis and stifles an individual’s ability to achieve their full potential.
Poverty can affect almost any of us, but some groups face greater risk than others, for example disabled people, some minority ethnic groups, lone parents, and renters.
Where you live also shapes both likelihood and your experience of poverty.
Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity’s new report provides rich and accessible insights into the everyday realities of poverty.
The experiences of Teresa, Tessy, Carlos, Isobel and Kim, who are struggling to make ends meet on low incomes, ring true far beyond Lambeth and Southwark.
In Personal perspectives on urban health and wellbeing, we see the complexity of links between diversity, deprivation and urban environment. We also see the links between poor quality work, insecure and high housing costs, limited services and support, and the everyday effects of anxiety, stress, loneliness and poor health that poverty can produce.
One of the key insights from the report - that if you are struggling to make ends meet on a low income, there isn’t the headspace or time available to consider exercise and diet - resonates with research on personal decision-making and poverty, and on behaviours.
The report points to the value of protective factors – the safety nets provided by family, friends, faith, services, and the support people can draw from green spaces and community places. And that such assets are not equally available. Many people are, or feel, locked out.
These stories are neither new nor isolated.
Poverty is real. Poverty hurts families, society, the education system and the economy, and affects quality of life, damaging health, wellbeing and prospects. Poverty is costly - costing the public purse an estimated £78bn a year, which equates to £1,200 per person. A large proportion is made up of the amount of public spending directed towards tackling the negative effects of poverty – much of this coming from the health budget.
The UK currently spends £29 billion a year (25% of total health spending) on treating medical conditions closely associated with poverty.
That’s why last year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) published a comprehensive long-term strategy for solving UK poverty for all ages. Our report has recommendations not only for governments at all levels, but for service providers, businesses, utilities providers, housing associations, voluntary and faith groups, and communities.
The NHS – and large, local ‘anchor’ institutions like acute hospitals have a major role to play in solving poverty nationally and locally.
A place-based approach to improving the quality of health services in a local area can help to maximise the role that local health services and public health can play in supporting practical solutions and routes out of poverty. Health practitioners such as GPs, community nurses and health visitors have extensive networks and are well placed to direct people to the most appropriate source of support to meet their needs – thinking beyond health too, for example signposting to advice on benefits, debt, family and relationship support.
For example, as a major employer and organisation with considerable purchasing power, the hospitals of Guy’s and St Thomas’s play a major role in boosting the incomes and the prospects of people living and working locally. Anchor institutions, such as hospitals, have a key role to play in using their collective spending power, knowledge and networks to help connect jobs and opportunities to disadvantaged people and places. This could be achieved through tailoring procurement and planning processes to support job creation and apprenticeships in their local area, which can help people get into work, learn new skills and improve their prospects.
If we are to solve poverty in local communities we must also build pressure for change within those places. This means ensuring that local people and organisations, including local health services, are a positive force for change in their areas, actively contributing and implementing practical solutions to local problems.
Solving poverty requires a sustained effort at all levels and across all sectors. It is not just a job for government – nor for those of us who live in poverty now. It is a job for us all.