Health issues in British society

Health issues in British society have increasingly become an area of concern for the government. The government have been producing documents to encourage a healthier population since 1976. The document that will be a focus in this report is ‘Saving lives: Our healthier nation’ published in 1999. This report will concentrate on the greatest health threats faced by the poorer people in Britain, who are most vulnerable to death and ill health.

Sociologists have contributed to the understanding of health and illness by identifying patterns and trends in health promotion.

‘Saving lives: Our healthier nation’

The publication drawn up by the Government is a significant base for the contribution to health awareness. This White Paper outlines the government’s targets for improving the health of the population by the year 2010.

To improve the health of the worst off in society

The government aims to target the worst off people who have reduced opportunities of a healthy life by concentrating on poverty stricken areas where poor health is most common. There will be more opportunities for health improvement and the government aim to educate poorer areas about how to have a healthier lifestyle. ‘Successful health education campaigns in the past have tended to widen inequality, because the better off took more notice and changed their behaviour faster than others did’. (4.7). Areas that require attention:

Financial security: The government has identified that the gap between the rich and poor is immense and those who live in areas surrounded by high rates of poverty, unemployment, poor housing and poor education are most likely to suffer.

‘The poorer you are, the more likely you are to be ill and to die younger’. (4.2)

There is a clear relationship between ill health and low income, so the government propose to introduce benefits that enable people with a low income to have a level of security. Social security is increasing child benefits so that children have better security. Mothers who have a low income or are unable to work will be introduced to affordable childcare.

The elderly are vulnerable to poverty, especially those with a low pension. The government has provided free eye tests and reduced transport fares to ensure they too have some level of security.

Housing is another form of security; if the home is unsafe, it can lead to bad health through damp or cold conditions. The government are aiming to offer more opportunities for people to have safe housing.

‘In any one winter there will be 2.5 million homes in England cold enough to cause ill-health’ (4.29)

Homeless people are the most vulnerable group to suffer, the government has begun a Homelessness Action Programme to tackle health risks in homeless people.

Education and employment opportunities: There is a high connection between education and poor health, which differentiates the rich and the poor. If everyone had the same opportunities to education, there would be a decrease in ill health. Better-educated people are more aware of health risks and what to do about them. The government aim to give worse off people a better education to ensure they lead a healthier lifestyle. A better education affords a better opportunity of employment, which is significant in leading a healthier life. For example, The cooking for kids programme aims to reduce coronary heart disease and cancer by teaching children a healthy balanced diet.

Unemployment is higher in areas of poverty and makes people vulnerable to mental illness. The government are making it easier for poorer people to gain a job. They are also aiming to improve working conditions to reduce accidents at work, which may cause death or ill health.

Healthier lifestyles

The government stress that ‘If people are healthier, their demands on the health service will be less than they would have been’ (1.12). There is a huge encouragement to promote healthier lifestyles through better diets and more exercise. The government are providing information to the public to encourage better health decisions. These are communicated to people through various campaigns and advertisements. The government are determined to succeed in making a change to people’s lives by investing huge amounts of money.

There have been many attempts to convey the importance of healthy lifestyles. Most recently, there is a huge amount of advertisement aimed at the diets of children. For example, the food company ‘Bird’s Eye’ have introduced ready meals especially for children. This is one of the many food campaigns that are aiming to increase the good food that people eat.

Poverty, whether absolute or relative has been a significant focus for many sociologists, who have contributed to the understanding of health and illness in many ways. The sociology of poverty is one that many viewpoints can be argued.

Political economy derived from a Marxist perspective that argues material and economic factors are behind the opportunities of people. In the 1980’s the division between the rich and poor was growing wider, thus the opportunities for healthy lifestyles were also. Political economy argue that the working class are exposed to worse conditions in all aspects of their life, therefore creating less opportunities for health benefits. Such poor living conditions and low incomes can reduce one’s access to health awareness. The working class have less availability to healthy diets due to their low income. However, the political economy do not argue that there is no choice for poorer people, instead, it is suggested that working class areas are more vulnerable to ill health.

Political economy argues that health promotion is unable to tackle ill health due to the focus put upon behaviour and lifestyle as opposed to social constraints on people.

The Marxist approach to poverty and ill health concentrates on capitalism. Capitalism exploits those in a worse off situation and allows poverty to continue. Those in power, who own the ‘means of production’, are able to pay low wages and the welfare state serves as a tool to maintain exploitation of the working classes. Critics, like the New Right have argued that inequality is inevitable, and poverty will always exist whether it be absolute or relative.

It is sometimes simple to blame the individual, however there are other factors to concentrate on such as structural and cultural differences in society. New Right theorists like Charles Murray attack the welfare state whilst also blaming the individual for their awful situations. The emergence of the term ‘underclass’, was one used by Murray and has been considered extremely controversial. The ‘underclass’ refers to disadvantaged and marginalised group placed at the bottom of society. Murray would blame ill health on the individual and suggest that due to their indolence they have caused their own situation. Murray condemns the government because they provide the unemployed with free healthcare service and as a result, taxes increase.

Murray argues that the underclasses are at a disadvantage due to their reliance on the state, and it should not be the responsibility of the government to amend this. Therefore, the New Right would disagree with the White Paper, as there is a huge focus on the poorer people in society. For example, if people do not save and insure themselves, they should not rely on the state for pensions. According to the New Right approach, there must always be inequality because not everyone can succeed, however, allowing people the opportunity to have a healthy ill free life seems to be less important than the focus on where the funding comes from. The New Right assumes everyone begins with the same opportunities but fails to account for those who have been born into poverty. We must not assume that the poverty trap is simplistic to get out of because it is not. The New Right would not agree that the government should help the poor. The New Right perspective fails to recognise that without the welfare state and the government, poverty would increase, thus ill health would also.

Functionalists recognise that poverty in society is necessary to keep everyone in the correct place, thus maintaining an incentive to succeed. Functionalism concentrates on the structural account by expressing the inequality is inevitable. In the government White Paper, ‘Saving lives: Our healthier nation’, it is recognised that there will always be divisions between classes. However, they aim to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. Just because there is inequality, it does not mean that people should be treated differently.

The government outlines that contributing factors to ill health are lack of education, employment, bad housing and financial constraints. These are all factors, which sociologists have incorporated into their work. For education, there is a huge amount of inequality. Material deprivation means that children in poverty stricken areas do not have access to material means such as books and equipment, thus resulting in constraints in education. People who come from poverty do not have the same good education as those children from better areas. This can result in ill health, as there is a lack of awareness in how to have a healthy lifestyle.

Less educated people do not have the same opportunities for employment, and the employment they do take on is low paid and often bad working conditions and benefits. This can lead to ill health, as there is no access to healthy food or in later life a reduced pension.

From a social democratic approach, they argue that people from deprived areas are caught up in a poverty trap where state benefits are lost due t gaining employment. As a result, there is no incentive to work. This can lead to bad health in later life, as there is lack of security when elderly. For example, if a single mother was caught in a poverty trap and remained on benefits, she would not have secure pension. Therefore, when she is elderly she will have restrictions that could affect her health. Social democrats argue that expectations for housing and benefits have increased, resulting in the expense being too high for the government. However, the government provide basic living standards for people in poverty to reduce health risks.

In conclusion, poverty is a concerning aspect that results in ill health. Factors such as education, employment and housing are all affected by lack of financial security. The elderly are vulnerable to poverty and bad health as they may not have been able to secure themselves for retirement.