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Archive for the ‘poverty’ Category

By Andy Beckingham FFPH, Fernandez Hospital, Hyderabad

Giggling Girls!

The scope of our profession gives opportunities to branch out. These may not always look at first glance like ‘public health’.

In 2010, working in India on maternal mortality, someone asked over dinner if I thought UK-style midwifery might be useful in India where doctors provided all the care. “Perhaps if you try the bits that work for women,” I said. “And avoid the bits that the NHS got so wrong.” My dinner companion turned out to be the MD of India’s most famous maternity hospital, and I found myself designing her midwifery pilot programme.

The midwife who had run the UK’s most woman-friendly midwifery service (the Albany Practice, which achieved great outcomes for disadvantaged women) was inveigled into joining us as a mentor. Eight anxious trainees found themselves becoming India’s first evidence-based woman-centred midwives (pictured). They began to develop their own profession, promoting choice about labour and supporting and empowering women to have more natural births. They had to challenge established obstetric practice. Our hospital’s maternity care began to change. Babies had been routinely separated from the mother at birth, although this impedes attachment and breastfeeding. The midwives worked with paediatricians to change that. Now most mothers have immediate contact and breastfeed their babies in the first hour.

Now leaders in their own right, those first eight have since mentored other trainees to become strong professional midwives, supporting thousands of Indian women to have better births.

Like most countries, India has unnecessarily high rates of intervention in childbirth. A local public hospital’s c-section rate is 52%. A local private hospital’s is 90%. But thanks to the midwives, ours has come right down. Instead of epidurals being routine, midwives ask women what pain relief they want. They offer choice. Women get continuity of care. The outcomes are better. Satisfaction rates are high.

In 2017, the state government invited us to train midwives to work in their hospitals too. They want c-section rates to come down. But they also want compassionate, respectful maternity care for the large numbers of women who are mostly ‘below poverty line’. So maybe, just maybe, this could become a model for wider public maternal-health improvement in lower-income countries. I have to assess its impact.

Designing a midwifery programme and curriculum doesn’t at first look like a public health role. But it is starting to address unmet needs, inequalities and disadvantage, improve care quality and effectiveness, show that Indian women and their choices matter. Of course, it will need to be part of wider action on social and economic determinants of maternal health.

And now, this alternative to the medical model is available, and the state government is actively promoting compassionate, effective midwifery care and supporting us to roll out professional midwifery more widely, among very disadvantaged women.

Public health, in disguise.

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By Ben Barr, Senior Lecturer in Applied Public Health Research, University of Liverpool, and Lee Bentley, Research Associate, University of Liverpool

The Chancellor of the Exchequer is due to deliver this year’s Budget on Wednesday. It is imperative that he provides additional financial support for disabled people affected by the planned cuts to Employment Support Allowance (ESA) – or risk further widening the disability–poverty gap.

One in three working age disabled people are living in poverty. Their risk of poverty is one and a half times greater than for people without a disability. The government’s strategy, however, for improving the lives of disabled people, focuses almost exclusively on the disability-employment gap rather than this disability-poverty gap (1). It is true that the high risk of poverty amongst disabled people is largely because they are less likely to be in work and supporting people into employment is an important strategy for reducing poverty. Welfare benefits, however, also play a crucial role in preventing poverty by limiting the loss of income people experience when they can’t work due to disability.

People who have lost their jobs because of a disability are likely to be out of work for longer than people who become unemployed. For this reason, disability benefits have generally been set at a higher level than unemployment benefits. From April, this will no longer be the case. The government is reducing the level of ESA for disabled people who are assessed as being currently unable to work but potentially capable of work at some time in the future. The benefit will be reduced by 30% to £73 a week – the same level as unemployment benefits. But whilst 60% of new claimants of unemployment benefits will move off the benefit within six months, 60% of people on ESA will still be claiming this benefit two years later (2). This means that many people out of work because of a disability will have to survive for long periods of time without an adequate income.

Levels of poverty are already very high amongst people out of work with a disability and have been increasing since 2010, particularly amongst people who have a low level of education – the group most reliant on disability benefits (see Figure 1). Cutting these benefits will exacerbate this adverse trend.

Percentage of people with disability in poverty

FIGURE 1: % of people with a disability in poverty, aged 16-64, between 2007 and 2014, by employment status and educational level 

The government argues that reducing these benefit levels will incentivise disabled people to stay in or return to work (3), but there is little evidence to support this assumption (4), and some that suggests it may reduce their employment chances (2). Strategies to reduce the disability-employment gap over recent decades have increasingly focused on more stringent assessment criteria for disability benefits, reduced payment levels and requiring claimants to do more to prepare for work or risk losing their benefits (5, 6, 7). These strategies have had little impact on the employment of people with disabilities (8). It remains to be seen whether the government’s new strategy to halve the disability employment gap will be any more successful (1).

Even if the government’s strategy does improve the employment of disabled people, it is likely this will disproportionally benefit disabled people with greater skills and education (9, 10). The planned cuts in ESA will increase the risk of poverty for the most disadvantaged disabled people who remain out of work, and this may increase the disability-poverty gap.

Increasing poverty amongst people out of work with disabilities will adversely affect their health and increase health inequalities. We know that poverty damages peoples’ health, and adequate welfare benefits for people who can’t work can reduce these effects (11). We have seen that in recent years inequalities in health are increasing (12) in part due to disability benefit reforms (13). The severe cut planned by the government will further exacerbate these inequalities, potentially increasing levels of disability.

1    Great Britain, Department for Work and Pensions, Great Britain, Department of Health. Improving Lives: The Work, Health and Disability Green Paper. 2016 (accessed March 2, 2017).
2    Work and Pensions Committee. Disability employment gap. London: House of Commons, 2017 (accessed March 2, 2017).
3    Kenedy S, Murphy C, Keen K, Bate A. Abolition of the ESA Work- Related Activity Component. House Commons Libr Brief Pap 2017.
4    Barr B, Clayton S, Whitehead M, et al. To what extent have relaxed eligibility requirements and increased generosity of disability benefits acted as disincentives for employment? A systematic review of evidence from countries with well-developed welfare systems. J Epidemiol Community Health 2010; 64: 1106–14.
5    Watts B, Fitzpatrick S, Bramley G, Watkins D. WELFARE SANCTIONS AND CONDITIONALITY IN THE UK. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2015.
6    Banks J, Emmerson C, Tetlow GC. Effect of Pensions and Disability Benefits on Retirement in the UK. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2014 (accessed Sept 26, 2015).
7    Baumberg B, Warren J, Garthwaite K, Bambra C. Rethinking the Work Capability Assessment. London: Demos, 2015.
8    Mirza-Davies J, Brown J. Key statistics on people with disabilities in employment. House Commons Libr Brief Pap 2016; 7540.
9    Burstrom B, Nylen L, Clayton S, Whitehead M. How equitable is vocational rehabilitation in Sweden? A review of evidence on the implementation of a national policy framework. Disabil Rehabil 2011; 33: 453–66.
10    Clayton S, Bambra C, Gosling R, Povall S, Misso K, Whitehead M. Assembling the evidence jigsaw: insights from a systematic review of UK studies of individual-focused return to work initiatives for disabled and long-term ill people. BMC Public Health 2011; 11: 170.
11    Cooper K, Stewart K. Does money in adulthood affect adult outcomes? York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2015 (accessed July 30, 2015).
12    Barr B, Kinderman P, Whitehead M. Trends in mental health inequalities in England during a period of recession, austerity and welfare reform 2004 to 2013. Soc Sci Med 2015; 147: 324–31.
13    Barr B, Taylor-Robinson D, Stuckler D, Loopstra R, Reeves A, Whitehead M. ‘First, do no harm’: are disability assessments associated with adverse trends in mental health? A longitudinal ecological study. J Epidemiol Community Health 2015; : jech-2015-206209.

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by Paul Southon

  • Public Health Development Manager
  • UK Healthy Cities Network Local Coordinator

Welfare reform is a reality. Reviews of the likely health impacts suggest that they will be significant, are starting now and will last for a generation. (1) (2)

Work to quantify the financial implications for local areas shows that the financial impact will be disproportionately felt by the areas with the largest health inequalities. (3) There is also evidence that the impacts on already disadvantaged sections of communities – such as disabled people, black and minority ethnic groups and women – will be disproportionate. (4) (5)

All of this is happening at a time of major reductions in budgets and staffing across the public sector which limits the local ability to respond. This has been described as a perfect storm for local government. It will also have significant impacts across health services.

Over the longer term there is likely to be an increase in mental health problems, non-communicable diseases and related disabilities which will be felt across the health and social care system. Increasing poverty, especially child poverty, will have long term and generational impacts on child development, health outcomes and life expectancy.

GPs are reporting an increase in people with mental health problems. They are also reporting increasing numbers of requests for support with appeals against Work Capability Assessment decisions and the changes to disability benefits.

Currently the most visible part of the welfare reforms is the spare room subsidy or ‘bedroom tax’. Families on housing benefit who are defined as having extra bedrooms suffer a financial penalty. There is a severe shortage of available smaller properties for these families to move into. Their options are to move into the private rented sector, which may be more expensive, or stay where they are with a reduced income. Families are also moving to areas with lower rents, losing their social and support networks.

Councils are already reporting increases in rent arrears.(6)It is likely that this will lead to increased stress and family tensions, which could be exacerbated by the loss of social and support networks. A concern is that these families will resort to using alternative lenders, such as pay day loans, to cover shortfalls. One payday loan company has recently increased its typical APR to 5,835%.

For families experiencing poverty food becomes a major problem, both in access to enough food and in the quality of the food available. The rapid rise in food banks is testament to the difficulty families have in buying food. (7)

They also have to rely on the cheapest food which is often poor in nutrition and high in fats, including trans-fats. With the current food environment eating healthily is not a cheap option.

So, welfare reform is a reality. The evidence suggests that it is likely to have a major negative impact on public health and inequalities. It is now time to ask the key question: What can local areas do about it and what is the role of public health?

Much of the focus in councils has been on setting up the local systems to manage what were previously national benefit systems, the social and crisis fund payments and council tax benefits. Now these are operational the wider impacts of the reforms are being considered.

Many councils are mapping the local impact of welfare reforms to better understand the local challenges. (8) However, the scope to tackle these challenges at a local level is limited.

One of the stated aims of the welfare reforms is to encourage people into work. This is a laudable aim. Supporting someone into good quality work is a major public health win. The main way to reduce the numbers of people reliant on benefits will be to increase local employment.

However, increasing local employment is challenging in the areas where welfare reform will have the largest impact. Many of these areas have poor levels of educational attainment. Much of the available employment is low paid and insecure. A recent report estimates the local financial impact.

For example, Sandwell will lose around £119 million from the economy each year resulting in less money spent within the local economy, affecting local business and resulting in fewer local jobs.

With the limited scope for minimising the impacts of welfare reform at a local level it is essential that the most is made of local resources. This will need joined up working across councils, health, voluntary and community sectors and local businesses.

Public health has a role in raising awareness of the changes and the health impacts across all parts of the council and partners. It can also support the mapping and analysis of local impact, helping identify the local priorities for action and ensuring local plans are evidence based and monitored effectively.

Welfare reform is here, it comes with a real risk of significant negative impacts on health and inequalities at both local and national levels. Public health in councils needs to recognise this and ensure that it is fully involved in local efforts to minimise these impacts. At a regional and national level public health must lobby for changes to policy to protect population health and the disproportionate effects on the most vulnerable.

(1)Institute of Health Equity (2012). The impact of the economic downturn and policy changes on health inequalities in London.

(3) Beatty C, Fothergill S. Hitting the poorest places hardest: the local and regional impact of welfare reform. Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research. 2013

(4) Oxfam GB. (2010) A gender perspective on 21st century welfare reform.

(5) Welsh Government. (2013) Analysing the impact of the UK Government’s welfare reforms in Wales – Stage 3 analysis.

(6) Inside Housing (2013) Rent arrears up in wake of bedroom tax.

(7) Trussel Trust (2013) Increasing numbers turning to food banks since April’s welfare reforms.

(8) Sandwell Trends: Welfare Reform Topic Page (2013).

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