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Poverty, health, foodbanks, and debt counselling

30 October 2015


From the Revd Paul Nicolson

Sir, — Your articles about health, religion, and spirituality (Features, 16 October) missed out the circumstances of life which make people unhealthy.

The Financial Conduct Authority tells us that a vulnerable consumer is someone who, owing to personal circumstances, is especially susceptible to detriment. The Institute of Health Equity has spelt out why not having enough money makes an impact on health.

There were 280,000 cases of homelessness in 2014. The homeless are more likely to die at any age than housed contemporaries. They are 35 more times more likely to commit suicide, and twice as likely to get cancer. A national audit in 2010 found that 82 per cent have at least one physical health problem, and 72 per cent have at least one mental health problem.

Fuel poverty affects 10.4 per cent of the population, who are often unable to cook meals or keep warm. There were 18,200 excess winter deaths in 2013-14. In the 25 per cent of coldest homes, there is a 20-per-cent-increased risk of winter mortality over the warmest. Also, cold homes are linked to higher levels of respiratory conditions, poor mental health, and higher rates of cardiovascular disease.

Analysis of the national Diet and Nutrition Survey 2008/09-2011/12 has found that lower-income groups consume less protein, iron, fewer fruits and vegetables, less vitamin C, less fish, less oily fish, and less folate. For example, 39 per cent of women and girls in the lowest-income group are below the appropriate standard for iron, compared with 12 per cent in the highest-income group. Lack of iron can lead to lethargy, higher susceptibility to illness and infection, and heart and lung complications. Pregnant women with anaemia have higher risk of complications.

Foods that are nutrient-dense per calorie are more expensive. People on low incomes find it harder to buy a healthy diet for their children. The research shows that, for any given level of energy intake, a lower consumption of fruit and vegetables was associated with lower diet cost, and that, at each level of energy intake, higher dietary energy density was associated with lower diet costs.

In deprived areas, there also tends to be a proliferation of fast-food outlets, which serve large portions of unhealthy food. Poor maternal nutrition increases the risk of low birth-weight babies with long-lasting mental-health problems.

Children born into poverty suffer an increased risk of mortality in the first year of life and in adulthood, are more likely to be born early and small, and they face more health problems in later life. Preventing low birth weight should be a priority for public-health officials; but efforts to do this will be hampered if parents have insufficient incomes.

Income poverty and, particularly, debt increase the likelihood of mental disorders, including sleep deprivation and depression among new mothers. The effects are particularly evident among women, because they are more likely to handle family budgets and have caring responsibilities, and are often the “shock absorbers” of reduced family incomes. Maternal depression is, in itself, a significant risk factor for poor social and emotional development in children.

Government policies of caps, cuts, and council tax are creating unmanageable debts for citizens with the lowest incomes. The policies ignore the impact of low incomes and high housing costs on mental and physical health.

Taxpayers Against Poverty
93 Campbell Road
London N17 0BF


Sir, — I do voluntary work with a small group of debt-crisis advisers. It began after a woman with two little children asked a foodbank volunteer to carry her bag of food to her car. Her car was a new 4×4, and inside were two large dogs and two new computers that she had just bought for the children. Not exactly a poor person, or was she?

He mentioned this to others, and, as they spoke to their foodbank clients, they realised that the root problem was that they could not manage their income properly. They then set up a debt-crisis panel with five people with the relevant expertise, of whom I was one.

Young families were generally the worst on money management. When we visited those who asked for our help, because they were in debt, we often discovered that they had two nearly new cars, a computer for every member of the family, a TV in every room, computer games strewn all over the floor, big dogs, and expensive furniture. One family had a new caravan, but commented that they used it only for weekends, as they had their main holiday in the tropics. A single-parent mother of two had just returned from a holiday in Florida. Some families had over-sized houses; one had a study for him and one for her, but they studied nothing. Quite often the woman did not work at all. Their “garden” was a rubbish tip.

Of course, not all are like this, and there is real poverty, especially among the rural elderly; but I believe that debt counselling would be far more helpful than foodbanks in the longer term. My parents had a rule that we never bought anything unless we could save up and pay for it. When we got married, I was on the very low wage of a shop assistant, and my wife was a part-time cleaner. We had no benefits apart from family allowances, and no car, and our annual holidays were a week in a rented caravan near Folkestone; but we lived well.

Many Christians are involved with foodbanks and condemning the benefits cuts, but may I suggest debt-crisis counselling as the principal answer?


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