Cost of living crisis set to cut lives short and widen wealth-health gap

Published: 26 September 2023

The cost of living crisis is set to cut lives short and significantly widen the wealth and health gap between the richest and poorest sectors of society in Scotland and the UK, suggests a new modelling study, co-authored by the UofG’s Professor Gerry McCartney.

The cost of living crisis is set to cut lives short and significantly widen the wealth and health gap between the richest and poorest in Scotland and the UK, suggests a modelling study published in the BMJ Public Health, co-authored by the UofG’s Professor of Wellbeing Economy, Gerry McCartney.

The proportion of people dying before their time (under the age of 75) is set to rise by nearly 6.5%, with those in the most deprived households experiencing a rate four times that of the least deprived.

'Population mortality impacts of the rising cost of living in Scotland' was published today in the prestigious BMJ Public Health Journal.

The researchers aimed to assess the impact of inflation on death rates in Scotland in 2022-3, with and without mitigating measures.

Professor Gerry McCartney said: “Our study estimates the impact inflation is having on mortality. We estimate that inflation, even with the mitigations put in place by the UK Government last year, contributed to an increase in premature mortality of over 6%. The impacts of this are greater in more deprived areas.

“The impacts of austerity and the pandemic are now likely to compounded by the higher prices being faced by the population, and especially by those living in the most difficult circumstances. Governments should focus on reducing poverty and reversing the austerity policies that have reduced the incomes and services available to those on the lowest incomes in order to protect the health of the population.”

The researchers used scenario modelling, a mathematical technique that envisages a range of potential futures to estimate how: recent high inflation would affect household incomes; mitigation measures would modify these effects; death rates/life expectancy and inequalities in these would change as a result.

Their estimates showed that without mitigating measures, inflation in October 2022 would have ranged from just under 15% in the wealthiest households to just under 23% in the poorest. The EPG scenario reduced this to between 11.7% and 15.7%, respectively.
Whatever the scenario modelled, in absolute terms real income reductions would be higher for households in less deprived areas than in more deprived areas. But households in the most deprived areas would be hardest hit in relative terms, even with government support, and would be expected to be £1400 worse off in 2022-3.

Similarly, the researchers estimated large increases in deaths resulting from the real term reduction in incomes for each of the scenarios modelled.

Without any mitigation, inflation could increase deaths by 5% in the least deprived areas and by 23% in the most deprived. The EPG scenario would lower these to between 3% and 16%, and the addition of the Cost of Living Support would cut these to between 2% and 8%.

Overall life expectancy would fall by just over 2% (1.6 years); by 1.4% (1.1 years); and by 0.9% (0.7 years). But in each case, larger reductions in life expectancy were predicted in the most deprived areas, ranging from 2.7 years (3.7%) in the unmitigated scenario to 1 year (1.4%) in the scenario including both the EPG and Cost of Living Support payments.

The researchers also used validated measures to estimate absolute and relative inequality between the most and the least deprived sectors of the population.

The ‘unmitigated’ scenario would see this gap widening significantly, with absolute inequality rising by 30% for premature deaths and by 21% for life expectancy; relative inequality would rise by 12% and 23%, respectively.

The researchers commented: “Our analysis contributes to evidence that the economy matters for population health. Evidence suggests that since 2012, economic conditions in the UK have caused a stalling of life expectancy and widened health inequalities, as austerity led to weaker social security and reduced income for the poorest households.”

“The mortality impacts of inflation and real-terms income reduction are likely to be large and negative, with marked inequalities in how these are experienced. Implemented public policy responses are not sufficient to protect health and prevent widening inequalities.”

First published: 26 September 2023