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June 1, 2016

Poverty shapes health

No one disputes that Scotland faces serious health inequalities. In the poorest parts of Glasgow you’re lucky to live beyond your mid-50s and so you’d think the link between poverty and health is beyond question. But at this point in the search for causes and cures, the thinking gets a bit fuzzy. A recent report suggest that too many public health initiatives have suffered from ‘lifestyle drift’, ending up blaming poor people for poor lifestyle choices when in reality no choice exists. The report also concludes that these communities understand their health needs better than anyone.


University of West of Scotland

‘I don’t smoke; don’t drink. The only thing wrong with me is my health’ – new report

A series of interviews with people living in two towns in Ayrshire has highlighted the impact that wider social issues have on people’s health – and need for local communities to be at the centre of solutions.

The report from the University of the West of Scotland links the experiences of austerity, de-industrialisation and welfare reform over the last 40 years with people’s experiences of ill-health.

It adds further evidence of the need to tackle root causes of poverty and inequality when facing the health issues of deprived communities. It also notes that tendency for public health campaigns, even ones which are well-meaning, to suffer from ‘lifestyle drift’ where the poor are often blamed for their problems.

The report is based upon the interviews with people living in Kilmarnock and Cumnock, where they told researchers about the issues which they saw affecting their communities – often directly related to government social policies.

In one extract John, an ex-miner, describes how other people might judge those in poverty:

“We’re going way back to the Victorian times here, like…They think if you’re in poverty, it’s through your own making, and if you’re in bad health, like myself, it’s through my own making. [They’ll think] I’ve probably drunk all my days and, I’ve took drugs and I’ve partied to the early hours of the morning and it’s all self-inflicted. That’s how a lot of people will look at it, and the way the government’s at it just now, anybody that’s on benefits – there’s got to be some reason why they’re on benefits.”

“Nearly every day I’m picking this paper up, I’m reading aboot the life expectancy wae me and [compared to] maybe staying doon in London…They’re absolutely kicking you every way they can, like. And if you’re in a poor area, you’ll always be in a poor area…”

The report concludes that local communities should be at the centre of addressing these issues, noting that “not only do many policy makers and practitioners have something to learn from them, so too does a significant section of the research community – ourselves included”.

This study was part-funded by the University of the West of Scotland-Oxfam Partnership and NHS Health Scotland, which also funds CHEX.

You can read a summary on the Herald website here and an opinion piece here.