Voices: Poorer people are dying earlier – Britain’s class divides are very much alive
Death and taxes are inevitable, as the saying goes. But when you die is not fixed and can be changed. A range of socioeconomic factors determine individual life expectancy. Where you live as well as how you live are what dictates how long you will live.
If you need proof, the Office for National Statistics has produced it, in its new report on socioeconomic inequalities in avoidable mortality. Their findings are bleak, and the gap between rich and poor has widened considerably since they first started collecting data in 2001.
Forty per cent of all male deaths in the most deprived areas are avoidable, compared to just 18 per cent in the most affluent. Not quite as stark, but still depressing, are female deaths. In the most deprived areas, they accounted for 26.7 per cent of avoidable deaths but just 12 per cent in the least deprived areas.
It’s worth dwelling on these differences for a moment. Four out of 10 male deaths in the most deprived areas are premature. The contributing factors – poor housing, poverty, unemployment and lack of education – are not inevitable in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
It is not just that people die prematurely, but their time leading up to death is filled with years of misery. Not only does poverty kill but it robs people of the ability to live disability-free up to the point of their death. These premature deaths are usually preceded by years of complex physical and psychological ill health. Poverty grinds away at our body and soul.
The ONS makes clear that alcohol and drug disorders are a leading cause. In the most deprived areas, drug and alcohol-related deaths for men is 78.1 per 100,000, compared to just 13 per 100,000 in the most affluent areas. For women, the gap is only slightly narrower at 35.1 per 100,000 in the poorest areas and 7.2 in the wealthiest ones.
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The brutal irony is that drugs and alcohol are often used to numb poverty and all the stress that accompanies inadequate housing, unemployment and lack of opportunity. In 2010, the Conservative government’s policy of austerity included savage cuts to alcohol and drug treatment. The Tories knew few voters would object to cutting treatment for people they believe to have self-inflicted problems.
The chasm between rich and poor is laid bare in the data. In some parts of the country life expectancy is at levels last seen when the throne was occupied by Queen Victoria. Avoidable mortality is just that – avoidable – and not inevitable.
The government are absolving themselves of responsibility and denying the interventions they could make to halt inequality. The brazen and cold assertion made by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, in his spring statement, that he can’t help everyone, provides an insight to this government’s thinking.
We have a government that favours the wealthy over the poor and makes no secret of it. If you are poor, you are regarded as worthless and not deserving of help.