During this assignment I will be examining the sociological explanations for the link between poverty and illness. I will be considering various sociological explanations and will try to say which of these explanations is most useful and why. According to Taylor et al (2005, Pg 188) sociologists differ over how poverty should be defined and measured, such differences depend on their views of welfare provision and social inequality.
These differences are generally divided into two definitions; absolute and relative poverty. The term ‘absolute poverty’ was developed over one hundred years ago and is defined according to an absolute minimum standard of living. It is based on the belief, coined by Seebohm Rowntree in 1899, that all human beings have the same essential basic needs in order to stay healthy; poverty is defined as the physical lack of these basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter (Taylor et al, 2005, Pg 171).
It is generally measured by pricing these basic necessities, drawing a poverty line at this price and then defining poverty as those whose income falls below this line. Although this notion of poverty is accepted by most sociologists as being applicable anywhere in the world, it has also been widely criticised for its assumption that people’s basic needs are the same in all cultures and societies. Supporters of the ‘relative poverty’ theory argue that a definition must relate to the standards of a particular society at a particular time.
During the 1960s and 1970s Peter Townsend carried out significant research into poverty and is a leading supporter in defining poverty in terms of relative depravation. In his opinion individuals can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged or approved, in the societies to which they belong (cited Haralambos & Holborn, 2004, pg 241).
Townsend created a deprivation index which covered 60 different types of, what he believed to be, indicators of deprivation. Unlike Rowntree’s financial poverty line indicator, Townsend believed that focussing entirely on income when assessing a household’s material situation ignores other types of resources that might be available to individuals and households such as capital assets (owning their home vs renting) and benefits that come through employment, education and healthcare, (Haralambos & Holborn, 2004, pg 241).
Measurement of relative poverty indicates that poverty is far more widespread in the UK than if measured as absolute poverty. Critics of Townsend’s deprivation index argue that some of characteristics of the index are not necessarily associated with deprivation but could be merely cultural differences (such as not having a cooked breakfast or having a joint of meat). They argue that he did not attempt to discover whether it was income or choice that led people to appear deprived on his index. Haralambos & Holborn, 2004, pg 242) Ultimately, it is extremely difficult to get an exact measurement of what is poverty because people are all different and have varying notions of what they believe they need to lead a fulfilled life. Explanation of the role of social policy in seeking solutions to poverty Social policy is the measures that the government puts in place regarding social issues and the wellbeing of the public.
Surveys such as Rowntree and Townsend’s have been influential in the creation of government policies which aim to provide a minimum of standards and social protection. Examples of such policies include; Social Security, State Pensions, Child Benefit, Child Maintenance Bonus, Child Trust Fund, Cold Weather Payments, Council Tax Benefit, Disability Living Allowance, Housing Benefit, Incapacity Benefit, Income Support and Jobseeker’s Allowance (taken from the Department for Work and Pensions website).
The minimum wage was put in place in 1999 to bridge the gap between the rich and poor, eradicate the exploitation of vulnerable people desperate for employment and to provide a level of equal pay for both men and women. The government has also created an increase in benefits for low income families through the Working Families Tax Credits system and The New Deal, which is a programme that gives people on benefits the encouragement, help and support they need to look for work (Jobcentre Online).
The government’s public health policies were put in place in a bid to alleviate the link between poverty and illness, their core concerns are provision for the health of the public, health promotion, prevention of disease, the treatment of illness, care for those who are disabled, and the continuous development of the technical and social means for the pursuit of these objectives (Baggott, 2000, pg1). The National Health Service is publicly a funded healthcare system and was set up to provide free healthcare to everyone in the UK, regardless of their state of health, income or social class.
They provide free school dinners to children whose families are on low incomes as well as free dentistry and eyecare. They are committed to promoting health awareness, healthy eating and stopping smoking. The government have put a number of significant policies in place in to tackle poverty issues however the link between poverty and ill health continues. Most evidence suggests that although the welfare state has attempted to reduce economic inequalities in society, its impact on gender and racial inequalities has been limited.
Research shows that women are more likely to experience poverty than men as 62% of adults who receive income support are female. Women are more likely to be unable to work through having to look after children especially considering that 96% of lone parents on income support are women, those that are able to work are generally paid less than men. Poverty within ethnic minorities is also an issue with twice as many black people being unemployed than white, and on average earning less per week. Immigrants can also suffer as state pensions are only available to those who have been resident in the UK for twenty years. Inequalities in health
The above graph shows that for the period 1997-99, life expectancy at birth in England and Wales for males in the professional group was 7. 4 years more than that for those in the unskilled manual groups. The graph above shows that there were substantial variations in reported health status by social group. Among those in employment, rates of not good health for people in routine occupations were more than double those for people in higher managerial and professional occupations (8. 6 per cent and 3. 4 per cent respectively).
Those who had never worked or were long-term unemployed had even higher rates of not good health (18. per cent). The Black Report (commissioned by the Labour Government in 1974, published in 1980) studied life expectancy, mental illness and causes of death of people in different social classes and discovered that, although there had continued to be an improvement in health across all the classes since the introduction of the NHS, there was still a link between social class and health inequality.
So, although we have social policies in place, why is the link still there? The Black Report suggested that there were four differing sociological explanations that social scientists had offered: 1. Statistical artefact 2. Social selection 3. Cultural differences 4. Material differences Statistical artefact The artefact approach suggests although the statistics show a link between ill health, mortality and social class, the inequalities shown in statistics don’t really exist and are more a reflection of the methodologies used to measure mortality and social class. According to Haralambos & Holborn (2004, pg 312) critics such as Illsley (1986) argue that the statistical connection between social class and illness exaggerates the situation as it focuses on the differences between the highest and lowest classes instead of focusing on the improvements in the middle classes.
Others suggest that there is not a link and it is just people Interpreting statistics and highlighting certain areas. Social selection Social selection is the viewpoint taken mainly by the new right and functionalists. It claims that social class does not cause ill health, but that ill health may actually be a significant cause of social class. Wadsworth (1986) found a close relationship between illness in childhood and downward social mobility career (cited Haralambos & Holborn, 2004, pg 313).
Illsley (1987) argued that healthier people are more likely to progress up the career ladder as they have the energy to work harder and earn promotion (cited Haralambos & Holborn, 2004, pg 313). The differences in social class reflect the fact that healthier people are more able to work their way up the social class structure. Critics say that those from poorer backgrounds have more economic, social and employment concerns which can cause ill health and therefore is a result of poverty rather than the cause of it.