The Great Divide: How Poverty Divides our Communities, Undermines our Economies and Impairs our Health

We’re getting things seriously out of proportion. We’re worrying about carbon emissions, and failing to recognize that the thing which does most to damage our happiness, welfare and national health is not the pollution of the environment, but the growing gap between the country’s haves and the have-nots. Poverty is now the major determinant of disease. The number of British adults claiming Disability Living Allowance has almost tripled since 1992, and seven out of ten of those now receiving benefits are expected to remain dependent on the state throughout their entire lives. They’ll be caught in the poverty trap, which research shows will make them prone to low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and an increased risk of putting on weight and therefore suffering obesity- related disorders such as cardiovascular disease, strokes, Type-2 diabetes and at least six forms of cancer. Balancing the national budget will be nigh on impossible unless cuts can be made in these welfare payments, which currently account for one in every three pounds of government expenditure.

A survey of the health of people

in 31 European countries showed that more than half the UK population is overweight, which makes Britain the ‘fat man’ of Europe. Another investigation revealed that the UK was one of the least active nations in the world, with nearly two-thirds of its adults taking less than the recommended thirty minutes of moderate exercise five times a week. A third of the nation’s ten and eleven year olds are overweight or obese, a figure which is significantly higher in deprived inner city areas. Most of these underprivileged kids will go on to be roly-poly adults, which will treble their risk of premature death, and reduce their working efficiency since surveys show that overweight employees take twice as many days off work as those who maintain a healthy weight. In the five poorest boroughs of London, more than a quarter of children are obese by the time they reach the age of eleven. This doesn’t apply in upper class London areas, like Kensington and Chelsea, where the incidence of obesity is a less than a half what it is in the working class districts of Gateshead. This appalling injustice must be corrected, a change which will be far more easily achieved by grass roots interventions than by government legislation.

In May 2007 the British government set out ‘to be the first major country to reverse the rising tide of obesity and overweight in the population by ensuring that everyone is able to maintain a healthy weight.’ As Alan Johnson, the UK Health Minister at the time, reiterated a year later: ‘Tackling obesity is the most significant public and personal health challenge facing our society’. Since then the levels of obesity have continued to rise, despite the government’s funding of an ambitious nationwide ‘Changed4Life’ campaign. The health minister has now challenged the nation to find an ‘ambitious and innovative’ approach to overcoming the obesity epidemic. That challenge has been taken up by the Self Help Alliance, which in December will be launching a major initiative to get the nation fit. As a prelude to that campaign, it is now offering a series of weekly tips, which build up into a integrated programme of healthy life style change and permanent weight control. These can be accessed online at

© 2011

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