Welfare cuts cost health and lives, says new research

By staff writers
June 25, 2010

Severe cuts in social welfare spending by governments intent on reducing structural budget deficits can cost lives as well as cause economic pain, says a new Oxford University study.

Publishing their findings in the prestigious British Medical Journal, researchers found that levels of social spending in Europe are strongly associated with risks of premature death, particularly from diseases linked to wealth and social conditions, such as heart attacks and alcohol-related illness.

The study comes as the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in the UK plans huge social welfare reductions and across-the-board 25 per cent public sector cuts, amounting to the largest reduction in public spending since the Second World War.

In the research, Dr David Stuckler from the University of Oxford and his colleagues have dissected and analysed the effect of public spending on people's health.

In showing that show that levels of social spending are "strongly associated" with risks of death, they argue that, although governments may feel they are protecting health by safeguarding healthcare budgets, social welfare spending is just as important, if not more so, for overall population health - especially among vulnerable and low income groups.

The message backs the concern expressed by voluntary groups, trades unions, churches, health professionals, NGOs and a range of other individuals and organisations who have argued that in the UK, as elsewhere in Europe, the debt impact of the banking and finance-led recession is being imposed unfairly on the poor - and with deadly consequences.

It is also, critics say, a further nail in the coffin of the argument that the cuts-based emergency budget is "progressive" and that "we are all in this together", claims fronted respectively by the Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg and the Conservative leader and prime minister, David Cameron.

The research team evaluated data on social welfare spending collected by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) from 15 European countries in the years 1980 to 2005.

This includes programmes providing support to families and children, helping the unemployed obtain jobs, and supporting people with disabilities, all of which could plausibly affect health.

They then closely inspected the relationship between trends in these data and social spending. They found that when social spending was high, mortality rates fell, but when they were low, mortality rates rose substantially.

Based on their mathematical models, the researchers estimated that each £70 reduction in social welfare spending per person would increase alcohol-related deaths by about 2.8 per cent and cardiovascular mortality by 1.2 per cent, so that even modest budget cuts could have a significant impact on public health.

The researchers found spending on social welfare to promote health, and not simply on healthcare, had the greatest impact on public health. However, they also found that reducing spending on non-welfare sources, such as military or prisons, had no such negative impact on the public's health.

"This result indicates that some aspects of population health are sensitive to spending on social support," say the authors. "Nevertheless", they add, "health and social welfare programmes appears to be a key determinant of future population health that should be taken into account in ongoing economic debates."

The researchers conclude: "This report reveals that ordinary people may be paying the ultimate price for budget cuts - potentially costing them their lives. If we want to promote a sustainable recovery in Britain, we must first ensure that we have taken care of people's most basic health needs."


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