Earning more money may make us more healthy. People with low incomes generally die younger, and usually have higher levels of disease. This could be because wealthier people live in nicer places. Their occupations are less hazardous. They tend to be less prone to addictions. They generally eat nutritious food and exercise more. They tend to use their health services more effectively. The famous song from rock band U2 declares, ‘The rich stay healthy, the sick stay poor’. Perhaps this is a form of ‘natural selection’; favouring the fit to flourish and relegating the sick to struggle.
The city of Glasgow is a prime example. Its people have found themselves caught in a swirl of circumstances and behaviours that leave them with the lowest life expectancy and highest levels of disease in the UK – by a fair margin. Theirs is a widely studied global health case study on the notion of ‘health inequality’.
Reducing health inequalities is now a major policy goal. The political right assumes that earning more money makes us more healthy as suggested above. Economic growth is their tool for the task. The left assume that reducing difference in earnings will be more effective. They point to research blaming envy as a health risk; inequality in general as the prime culprit.
We need not belittle either of these perspectives to suggest there might be other underlying considerations – relational ones. After leading the ‘happiness and wellbeing’ debate for some years now, Professor Richard Layard has recently concluded that the emotional development of children is more important to future wellbeing than their education or employment. It is thus far from wistful to suggest that the strength of love within families and between friends makes the major difference; not an easy public policy nut to crack.
The experience of emotional wellbeing is not the only issue in health. But it may be more important than money. Our Health is a concept that seeks to get beyond the limitations of public policy. It challenges people to take responsibility for the wellbeing of their families and their neighbours. In so doing, their own health may improve – no matter how much money they have.
Many books are in print exploring this territory. I recommend the following: