From the TUC

Britain needs a healthy wage

06 Nov 2014, by Guest in Society & Welfare

The UK Faculty of Public Health manifesto calls on all political parties to commit to a living wage strategy over the next five years.

From Adam Smith through to the Living Wage Foundation of the present day, social commentators have recognized the notion of relative poverty. I call the things you cannot do without and still function in the culture of modern society the ‘brown breadline’.

The Trussell trust, in its latest publication, suggests we have gone below the ‘white breadline’, which represents absolute poverty. Acute hunger has returned to Britain for the first time in the welfare state.

In our open letter to Prime Minister, published by the Lancet in May, FPH highlighted three key and catastrophic changes which have combined for a perfect storm of food poverty: food prices up 12% over five years, double figure price rises in energy costs and a fall in wages by over 7% in five years. The result has been that some of the poorest people in our society must pay over one fifth of their disposable income to feed themselves.

Poverty kills. In the UK, the 6th wealthiest nation in the world, the gap in income between rich and poor has been getting bigger at least since the mid seventies and it has accelerated in our latest period of austerity.   The gap in life expectancy between rich and poor, which grew throughout the 1980s, has also grown.

Large studies from Glasgow and the North of England showed the extent to which poverty and unemployment contributed to the gap. A study reported in 1984 that unemployment was associated with a 20% higher than national death rates. Whilst the overall life expectancy has improved for rich and for poor to the present day, it has not improved as much for the poor.

A succession of reports has highlighted the difference in health between rich and poor. Babies born into poverty are more likely to be stillborn or die in the first year of life. They are less likely to be breast-fed, grow up shorter and nowadays, fatter, and lose their teeth earlier. They grow up in overcrowded housing and suffer more infectious illnesses.

Their chances of a university education are very much less and their chances of satisfying, financially rewarding work are slim. They will drift through short term, unskilled jobs on the edge of the labour market, in more dirty, dangerous, or boring work. Many will die prematurely; those that are propped up with the techno-fixes of modern medicine simply live more years with a disability and the dependency of long-term medical conditions.

Poverty contributes to the burden of ill health in a number of ways. A recent study of the cost of a healthy diet showed that across a basket of 94 foodstuffs, cheaper calories came from more highly processed foods. When you are poor, it’s calories you are thinking about to survive. Fresh foods and foods higher in nutrients minerals and vitamins were more expensive.

When you are making decisions to feed the meter, or feed a family, processed foods are cheaper to cook, but come with the high fat, high transfat, high salt, high sugar cocktail condemning people to early obesity and disease. There are also the stress-related aspects of working in a ‘low span of control’ job, for next to no money. Employees may benefit from a higher income, but employers have also benefitted from a more reliable, content, satisfied and efficient workforce when they have implemented the living wage. 

The Labour government in 1997 addressed poverty through the minimum wage, the working families tax credit, the Surestart maternity grant and the commitment to eradicate child poverty. Most of these have been scrapped or reduced in their scope and ambition. The minimum wage is now so far behind what people need to live creditably, that there is now the call for the living wage.

 The problems of poverty are characterised by the poor needing to spend a greater proportion of their disposable income than the rich on each household item. The living wage campaign begins to address this, being based on a complex set of assessments of household makeup and budget items which came from the minimum income standard (MIS) devised by Joseph Rowntree and Loughborough University.

It is always possible to contest those items. People are always free to spend their money in other less ‘sensible ways’ but evidence suggests that as people do get better off they take decisions with more long term benefit.

It is said that there is all-party support for the move, which is supported by the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London. The living wage this week has been revised to £9.15 an hour in London and £7.85 an hour in the rest of the UK. It could vastly improve the health of our workforce and their families and improve our workforce efficiency and economy. For all these reasons the Faculty of Public Health manifesto calls on all political parties to commit to a living wage strategy over the next five years.

2 Responses to Britain needs a healthy wage

  1. Mr Hasan Abdulla
    Nov 7th 2014, 7:28 pm

    Dear John Middleton,
    Thank you for this reminder about poverty and its effects. I grew up in a place where poverty was extreme for some of the less fortunate, and it is very unsettling to say the least to see echoes of that type of poverty here in the UK.
    I would like to add my voice to your efforts to secure a healthy wage for Britain’s workforce.
    Yours Fraternally
    Hasan Abdulla

  2. The white bread line: why we need a living wage | Better Health For All
    Dec 3rd 2014, 10:58 am

    […] A version of this blog first appeared on the TUC website on on 6 November. […]