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RECENT ANALYSIS has found that to heat their homes, some low-income households will soon have to spend 54 per cent of their income after housing costs.

Food writer Jack Monroe has reported that prices for the cheapest basic food items which many low income households rely on have risen, not by the headline rate of inflation of 5.4 per cent, but by 200, 300, even 400 per cent and more. Personal finance expert Martin Lewis has told the government: “We are going to have to put money into the system or we are going to have an absolute poverty crisis, with people being unable to eat or dying because of the cold.”

This is in no way an exaggeration – nor is it a new development. People already die from poverty in the UK –
their deaths are just not identified as such. Cancer charity Marie Curie has long warned of the effect of poverty on cancer patients, and this week called for more financial support, saying: ” Our research shows that cold homes can hasten the death of people with terminal illness – making this a matter of life or death.”  For many people, their official cause of death will be a specific illness, but poverty will have robbed them of extra months or years.

Even before the pandemic, the gap in life expectancy between the richest and poorest in the UK was alarming  evidence of the way poverty shortens lives. For men, the gap between those in an area of Blackpool and an area of Kensington and Chelsea was 27 years.  When the pandemic hit, we saw that working age adults in England’s poorest areas were almost four times more likely to die from Covid-19 than those in the wealthiest areas.

When people in poverty die decades earlier, or in far greater numbers, than their rich compatriots, we have to acknowledge that poverty is killing them, just as we readily accept that it kills people in the developing world.

This week in its report Inequality Kills, Oxfam spoke of the ‘economic violence’ which, globally, is contributing to the death of at least 21,000 people each day, one person every four seconds. This, they said, is a conservative estimate. Oxfam’s Gabriela Bucher said: “There is no shortage of money. That lie died when governments released $16 trillion to respond to the pandemic. There is only a shortage of courage and imagination needed to break free from the failed, deadly straitjacket of extreme neoliberalism.”

Here in the UK, the extreme neoliberal policy of austerity has taken a heavy toll. Even as it was widely acknowledged to be harmful to society and to the economy,  the policy continued to be pursued and entrenched, undermining vital services, slashing social security support, causing untold harm and misery. Many deaths were attributed to it and life expectancy began to decline – almost unheard of in a developed country.

Yet even now, when people face a cost of living crisis which forces them to go cold or hungry, or both, politicians and commentators bring out the well-worn cliches of ‘no magic money tree’, and maintain that reducing a perfectly manageable national debt is more important than the health and life of millions of British citizens. We urgently need to challenge the political choices that find limitless money for almost any priority, except people in dire need.

As for the government, it has now been told that if it does not act urgently to alleviate a growing poverty crisis, people will die. And we know that poverty is a political choice. When a Chancellor can write off £4.3 billion fraudulently claimed by businesses, but says we cannot afford £20 per week for some of the poorest people on Universal Credit or legacy benefits, we know that is a political choice. When there is no attempt to raise tens of billions of pounds from taxing wealth, but National Insurance payments for low paid workers are increased, that is a political choice. The poverty that results from all these decisions is a political choice, and preventable. And so the deaths which are a result of that poverty are also a political choice, and preventable.

In 1845, in The Condition of the Working-Class in England, Friedrich Engels described ‘social murder’ thus: “When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another such that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live…knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains.”

The logic of this seems unassailable. But some people may feel reluctant to take lessons from a close associate of Karl Marx. Perhaps they would be more inclined to listen to Pope Francis, who says in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium   (The Joy of the Gospel): “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020).  Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden