DEMAND AN END TO POVERTY THIS GENERAL ELECTION
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Health

We must 'tackle poverty to save the NHS and improve the nation's health', next government told

Without the next government tackling poverty after the upcoming election, 'we risk these unacceptable levels of hardship becoming baked into our society'

Appliance poverty is hitting increasing numbers of people. Credit: Unsplash / nrd

The troubling and “inextricable” link between poverty and health has been laid bare in an eye-opening new study, as a food bank reveals more than two-thirds of its users are disabled.

A study from The Health Foundation published on Tuesday (4 June) found that more than a quarter of adults aged 18 to 55 (26%) who live in households in persistent poverty rate their health as “less than good”. This is higher than for adults in non-persistent poverty (22%) and not in poverty (16%). 

The research found that people living in persistent poverty had the worst health of any of the three groups between 2021 and 2022. 

The study authors explained that the experience of “prolonged periods of poverty” can have long-term effects, for example the “build-up of chronic stress”. 

Food banks have corroborated this research, with The Trussell Trust explaining that “living on a very low income often leads to people’s mental and physical health worsening over time”. 

Helen Barnard, director of policy at The Trussell Trust, told Big Issue that more than two thirds (69%) of the people referred to its food banks are disabled, and that disabled people face hunger at a rate of two and a half times that of non-disabled people. 

Charlotte White, a former food bank manager in the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), added that living in poverty can exacerbate poor health, as “often small health issues become big ones, as things are left untreated”. 

She told Big Issue: “At the food bank I ran for four years, we definitely had a disproportionate amount of people with health issues, both physical and mental. I would estimate that over 50% of our guests had some kind of health issue.”

She explained that poverty and health can go hand-in-hand, as some food bank users “had long-term chronic health issues that they had been struggling with for a long time, resulting in them being unable to work, and often battling the system to get PIP [personal independence payments]”. 

On the other hand, she says, “there’s also a big barrier for people in poverty accessing healthcare, especially with the ‘digital as default’ system.”  

“Who can wait for hours on a mobile phone when you barely have any data and can’t afford to charge the phone, as there’s no electricity in the meter? Who can book on the online appointment system with no WiFi or perhaps language issues?”

Previous research has highlighted that poverty can affect health in numerous ways – not being able to afford period products, for example, can lead to the use of unsuitable products like old clothes and sponges, which can then cause infections.

Barnard added that without the next government tackling poverty after the upcoming election, “we risk these unacceptable levels of hardship becoming baked into our society.” 

“The next government must prioritise tackling poverty if it is to improve the nation’s health, reduce pressures on the NHS and other public services, and reinvigorate the UK’s economy,” she said. 

“We have to see reform to universal credit so it gives better protection from going without the essentials, and improved support for disabled people with faster access to disability benefits.”

White added: “More GP appointments are desperately needed, and an easier, more inclusive way for anyone to access them. And when there is a health issue impacting the ability to work, the process for PIP needs to be much smoother and quicker.”

Big Issue is demanding an end to poverty this general election. Will you sign our open letter to party leaders?

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
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