© 2023 Paul Mobbs; released under the Creative Commons license.
Created: 27th May 2023.
Length: ~2,000 words.
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Welcome to the fourth edition of my ‘ignored news’ blog; coming hard on the heels of the last one, as the media seem to be overwhelmed right now keeping-up with more important trivia.
Recently a new study mapped the effects of high fuel prices in Europe over the Winter of 2022/23, and the effect this had on the rate of excess death. However, this short-term effect – generically blamed on “Putin’s War” in Ukraine – is a distraction from the data also emerging right now on the crisis of life-expectancy in Britain as our national economy collapses.
Arising out of the economic crisis high fuel prices created, the Government is, again!, threatening to raise the retirement age – without any discussion of how ‘multidimensional poverty’1 in Britain is affected by this decision. As a ‘geriatric Gen-X-er’, it’s fairly noticeable that the ‘Boomers’, five or ten years older than me, are getting their pensions, while the rest of us get further and further ‘delayed’. This is a political choice, based not upon evidence for how this affects different demographics in society, but seemingly upon ensuring the security of one, largely right-voting2 generation over the others.
So, just like ‘little orphan Oliver’3, we have to ask… “Please sir, I want more”
As wealth becomes more concentrated, the problems of global inequality are increasingly mirrored within the affluent European nations – and Britain, especially. The media debate focusses on the difference between the middle class and the elite 1%. For that reason they miss the growing divide between the middle class and the poorest 10%.
An article popped-up recently in The Economist4: ‘Expensive Energy May Have Killed More Europeans Than Covid-19 Last Winter’:
Last November The Economist’s article5, ‘Russia is Using Energy as a Weapon’, had caught my attention. It projected that rising energy prices would lead to a corresponding increase in excess Winter deaths. Despite the exceptionally mild Winter across much of Europe they seem to have been correct. Are these the civilian casualties of the, quite literal, new Cold War?6
Across Europe, the price of energy and the level of non-Covid excess Winter deaths correlate. That’s unsurprising: With high energy prices people don’t heat their homes as much; and lower temperatures can exacerbate many pre-existing health conditions, as well as making it difficult to recover from seasonal diseases like flu.
What this data doesn’t encompass is the role of endemic poverty within this process, as that pattern is buried within the national datasets: Do these excess deaths spread across the population evenly; or is it one small section of the population – the poor – providing the majority of these cases?; and if so, rather than just energy prices alone, do high energy prices build upon poor health, poor diet, and poor housing, to increase the likelihood of excess death?
These more exacting questions were not answered by The Economist’s article. These are critical distinctions, though, because if this is the case then Russia didn’t ‘weaponise energy prices’ – any global disruption to energy supply would have caused a similar response as energy prices rose higher.
In Britain, the picture is even more complicated due to our national economic woes: It was already known that excess deaths were still 6% above the five-year average after the end of the pandemic; and that this was related to problems with the NHS7, a recent study in the British Medical Journal8 noting that an additional 1-in-82 of those experiencing delays in medical treatment died.
After the pandemic it might be assumed, with the weakest eliminated by Covid, that the excess death rate should have fallen. Instead excess deaths are running at almost 1,000 per week9 above the five-year average, and many people are dying at home rather than in hospitals.
The problems in the NHS are the function of a failing national economy, driven by over a decade of neoliberal austerity10. That’s even begun to attract the attention of international news agencies11 who are running articles12 on Britain as a ‘failing state’.
In the meantime – as Labour and the Tories both try desperately to differentiate themselves from one other, while pursuing much the same economic policy – our domestic political dialogue continues to fiddle the figures on targets or spending, rather than looking at the underlying structural problems driving the crisis. In particular, the role of Britain as the pre-eminent Western state enacting neoliberal economic policies, and how this has progressively asset-stripped the nation13.
A few weeks ago, to seemingly little response, the Work & Pensions Minister let it be known that after the next election the pension age in Britain would have to rise to 6814. Of course, people in Britain don’t react in the same way as our French neighbours… well, except, perhaps, for a vague Gallic shrug.
Again, coming back to ‘who’ makes-up the excess death figures for both rising energy prices, and NHS failings, the Office for National Statistics data15 paints a very clear picture of where the burden lies:
In England, men living in the most deprived areas die almost ten years earlier than those in the most affluent areas. For women the difference is almost eight years. Currently male life expectancy at birth in the most deprived areas of England is 73.5 years, compared with 83.2 years in the least deprived areas. For women, the equivalent estimates were 78.3 years and 86.3 years, respectively.
‘Life expectancy’ is an absolute end-point. What’s more interesting is ‘healthy life expectancy’ – the time people live before chronic health conditions worsen their quality of life. Those living in the most deprived areas can expect to have a healthy lifespan around eighteen years less than those in the most affluent areas. This creates a significant disparity when we look at setting the retirement age.
Currently the retirement age in Britain is 66. That will increase to 6716 after April 2026. The government had ruled out any further changes before 2044, but as noted above, that issue’s already back on the table after the next election.
This means those living in the bottom-half of the affluence spectrum can expect to continue to work while experiencing chronic ill-health – with the poorest 10% working an average 14 years with chronic health conditions before retirement. If the pension age increases to 68, then the least affluent 70% of the population can expect to work to retirement with some form of chronic health condition.
Of course, these figures are ‘averages’: While a few living in deprived areas will get to retirement age without any health issues, others will experience chronic ill-health well before the age stated in these statistics.
This is where we hit another element of Britain’s ‘poverty trap’17: Ill-health benefits.
Just as depicted in the 2016 Ken Loach film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’18 – which was ridiculed by Tory MPs19 at the time – thousands of people who applied for ill-health benefits, and were judged ‘fit to work’20 by the government’s ‘work capability assessment’21, died soon after. A fifth of disabled people whose deaths were reviewed found that benefits sanctions contributed22 to their death. For a number of years after this, the Department of Work and Pensions tried to suppress information23 about the operation of the scheme. While being forced to disclosed some details by the Information Commissioner, government reports showing how benefits sanctions and cuts – which allegedly led to hundreds of deaths – are still being suppressed24. And recently, the harsh work assessment from the early 2010s, known to have caused many deaths, was re-imposed in late 202225 despite the cost of living crisis.
Last year I made a video26 focussing on fuel poverty, and the historic economic inequalities in my home town. Applying the data on chronic ill-health, people in the most deprived parts of my town (deprivation index ‘2’) can expect to work the last ten years before retirement with poor health; while a short distance away, in the affluent villages on the edge of the town (deprivation index ‘10’), they can expect to reach retirement age in good health.
This demonstrates how economic decline does not effect everyone equally, even across small areas like my home town:
We have to stop treating this as a ‘Russia’ or ‘energy prices’ issue: It’s clearly a ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘inequality’ issue.
The media have recently begun to explore how the covid crisis28 and the cost of living29 crisis affect women the hardest. Yet, due to the complexity these relationships create, seldom do the media explore the related effects of poverty across communities, and the pre-existing trends in health within certain communities, that correlate to long-term economic disadvantage – and how food and energy price rises make those health issues worse.
Traditional stereotypes about poverty, based within the establishment's four-hundred year-old principle30 of, ‘the deserving and undeserving poor’, cannot encompass these complex relationships. Therein lies a deeper truth:
A recently published study31 evaluated how real wages had changed since the Sixteenth Century, demonstrating that not only did most people become relatively poorer as wealth inequality increased under capitalism – and especially colonialism – but that health and life expectancy inequalities increased in parallel. ‘Poverty’ in Britain arose a national issue at the turn of the Seventeenth Century, in response to changes in agricultural land practices which arose in parallel to mercantilism32; in turn, creating the social punishment, which informally continues to this day, of ‘the workhouse’.
Another study, published in early 202333, found that the pursuit of economic growth – which all political parties seem fixated upon at present – does not affect ‘multidimensional poverty’ in the same way as ‘income poverty’. Clearly, growth creates more work and more pay, but that only filters through to those who are capable of work. Those for whom structural, ‘multidimensional’ inequalities limit their ability to access or perform work are not able to access the benefits of growth to the same extent, meaning they benefit between five and eight times less compared to ‘income poverty’; and as countries get richer, those benefits slow further as the nature of those inequalities become more entrenched.
Poverty is ‘intersectional’34. It’s impacts are compounded by an individual’s age, gender, affluence, education, ethnicity, and health status. Poverty is not ‘monolithic’, it represents a diversity of experiences, very little of which gets any serious coverage in the national media beyond the generic stereotypes – and certainly, not within the discussions regarding the retirement age. That’s why we have to have regard to the ‘complexity’ of increasing the retirement age, and how that meshes with benefits for those deemed ‘unfit to work’. Otherwise current policies will just further immiserate those already subject to the harshest, most unequal quality of life in Britain today.