Austerity damages public health as well as the economy

By Savi Hensman
May 17, 2013

Austerity measures are causing avoidable illness and death on a major scale, public health experts have shown. In the UK and internationally, harsh cuts in public services and social services are damaging child and adult health and hindering economic recovery, yet some governments are pressing ahead.

The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills is a new book by David Stuckler, a senior research leader in sociology at Oxford University and associate faculty member at Johns Hopkins University, and Sanjay Basu, an assistant professor of medicine and epidemiologist in the Prevention Research Center at Stanford University. It sets out stark evidence of the damage that can be done by policies that worsen the harm caused by recessions.

The current economic crisis has affected health in different countries in varying ways, depending on how they have responded, the authors found. Behind the facts and figures are human tragedies, lives blighted or cut short and families shattered.

In an article for the New York Times to mark the publication of their book, they wrote that “Countries that slashed health and social protection budgets, like Greece, Italy and Spain, have seen starkly worse health outcomes than nations like Germany, Iceland and Sweden, which maintained their social safety nets and opted for stimulus over austerity.”

Analysis of the impact of economic shocks from the Great Depression onwards revealed that “people do not inevitably get sick or die because the economy has faltered. Fiscal policy, it turns out, can be a matter of life or death.”

In an interview reported by Guardian journalist Jon Henley, Stuckler pointed out that austerity is economically damaging too. “If there actually was a fundamental trade-off between the health of the economy and public health, maybe there would be a real debate to be had," he said."But there isn't. Investing in programmes that protect the nation's health is not only the right thing to do, it can help spur economic recovery.”

“If our social and economic policies were tested as rigorously as we test pills in a clinical trial, we would have stopped our ongoing austerity experiment long ago, given the profound evidence of its lack of benefits and deadly side-effects,” wrote Basu in a blog.

Also in May 2013, the British Medical Association published an important report on child health, Growing up in the UK - Ensuring a healthy future for our children. While this covered a range of topics, poverty was a critical issue, as damaging social policies threatened to reverse progress in improving young people’s health.

The report pointed out that “Poverty and social inequalities are some of the most important stressors on family life and are crucial determinants of children’s health and wellbeing” and warned that “child poverty is projected to increase, and the full impact of the Government’s cuts to social protection policy, and austerity economics, are yet to be determined.”

This will have long-term consequences, since “The health of our children is of crucial importance for their own future and that of the nation. It is an essential basis for continuing stability of society within a robust economic framework.”

Politicians have badly failed the nation’s children, argued Al Aynsley-Green, Professor Emeritus of Child Health at University College London, in a powerful foreword. And “the history of children’s health policy is such that there is limited confidence that anything meaningful or substantial will change especially against the backdrop of national financial austerity.”

He wrote, “Should there not be outrage that the lives of so many children and their families are blighted by the facts exposed in this book, despite current difficulties, still one of the richest countries of the world?” The current situation poses a moral and practical challenge to all who care about health for all.

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(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, social justice, welfare and religion. She works in the care and equalities sector and is an Ekklesia associate.

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