Poor falling to early grave

Photo: Remon Rijper/Flickr

We’re told that Australia is an egalitarian country. Our prime minister is a working-class migrant girl made good, while her predecessor was raised in regional Queensland by a single mother after the early death of his father.

Anything is possible; our origins need not hold us back.

A new report, linking health outcomes with social status, casts doubt on this. It concludes that those born poor are more likely to live in poor health during adulthood, and to die younger.

It is a well established fact that the most disadvantaged in our community — Indigenous people — suffer poorer health and die younger than their non-Indigenous cousins.

Between 2005 and 2007, the gap in life expectancy for Indigenous men was 11.5 years compared to non-Indigenous men. For women the difference was 9.7 years, said to the report Health Lies in Wealth: Health Inequalities in Australians of Working Age, released by Catholic Health Australia on September 27.

However, Health Lies in Wealth shows that the health deficit extends into the general community, and is largely determined by a person’s socio-economic status.

In short, if you’re poor, particularly if you’re unemployed, live in public housing and have limited education, you are much more likely to live in poor health and die younger than the more privileged layers of society. And the government is not doing enough about it.

Being born and raised in one of the poorest areas of the country would be likely to reduce your life expectancy by up to 3.5 years for men and two years for women, the report argues.

Being born poor also means a shorter healthy life.

The wealthy can expect 4.3 more years of health compared to the poor: so not only will you die younger if poor, you’re likely to languish longer in bad health as well.

If health of the poor was as good as for the wealthy, two thirds of premature deaths would be avoided.

The report notes that risky behaviours, such as smoking, poor diet, drug addiction and infrequent exercise, are often cited in studies as determinants of poor health. However, it says these are reflections of social disadvantage, rather than causes. If you are poor, unemployed and have little education, the report argues, your chances of eating badly, smoking, drinking and taking drugs are higher.

The most socially disadvantaged reported being in bad health two to three times more than wealthy people. For the poorest young men, poor health can be up to four or five times more likely than for their wealthier counterparts.

The most persistent indicator of poor health is living in the poorest 20% of households, in a jobless household or in public housing. But renters, particularly older renters, are also more likely to be unhealthy.

The report describes the health status faced by the poor as simply “unfair”. It calls on the government to do more to address the causes, rather than dealing with the symptoms only, through greater social inclusion, fairness and social justice.

The report makes four recommendations to government. It calls for all area health services to make note of the health gap between the poor and the wealthy, and to set reportable targets for improving the health outcomes of the poorest in our society.

It criticises inappropriate preventative health programs, such as those that simply call for healthier eating, when junk food is so much cheaper and easier to obtain. It calls for preventative health programs to be targeted to the most disadvantaged.

Non-government organisations should be better funded to target their message to the most disadvantaged, while reducing advertising aimed at the whole community. The report also calls for state governments to focus more on school completion rates, as poor health is linked with poor educational outcomes.

What the report does not do, however, is to really attack the problem at its source. Poverty is an endemic part of the private profit system. While a small minority amasses fabulous wealth, the vast majority battle to get by. The poorest 20% struggle; and its health is the worse for it.

To fundamentally turn this around, we have to fundamentally transform the system. Capitalism — it makes me sick.