The protective effects of social democratic welfare states during recessions

We are currently being told by the Coalition government that we are “all in it together” and that recession, austerity and cuts to welfare and the privatisation of the NHS are the necessary medicine to revitalise our broken country. This is a dangerous, neoliberal myth.

We are not “all in it together” and there is clear evidence that austerity is bad for health and that health inequalities are beginning to increase. Since 2007, suicide rates have increased across England – but at a greater rate in the more deprived areas. Similarly, antidepressant prescription rates have risen, again with the highest increases in poorer places. Food bank use and malnutrition rates have also increased more in the more deprived North of England. Austerity inspired cuts to welfare and local government have also impacted far more on poorer areas – as they lose around four times as much funding as the more affluent areas.  These cuts will only serve to widen health inequalities between areas and between rich and poor.

In contrast, our research published this week has shown that in fact, it is higher welfare provision that protects health and health inequalities in times of economic downturn. We examined the effects of economic recession on health inequalities in the two historically contrasting welfare states of England (amongst the least generous in Europe) and Sweden (amongst the most generous). We used data for a 20 year period from 1991-2010. We found that the health of the least educated English women worsened during recessions, in contrast, in Sweden, the health of all women improved significantly during recession regardless of their educational status. This suggests that Sweden’s more encompassing welfare state protects the health of all during recessions. The study can be accessed here.

This of course gives good reason to fear for the future of health inequalities in England as a result of the “Great Recession” and the unprecedented cuts to public services and the welfare safety net. We are now studying this in the hope of providing evidence to inform a future Labour government: more details.