The Rich, The Poor and the Trash

Summary of a documentary on global inequalities and waste

This excellent 2018 documentary gives us a rare insight into the daily working lives of two men living in poverty, both making a living through trash, one in Kenya and the other in the United States.

It’s a really useful resource for gaining an insight into what the lived experience of poverty is like in these two very different countries, and for highlighting the extent of global inequalities.

Most of the documentary focuses on two men, and we get to hear a lot from them: details of their lives and their thoughts on poverty and inequality and what they would do to help overcome the problems of inequality.

We also here from a few experts and other people, but these take on a supporting role to the two main proponents (which is unusual for documentaries like this, but also welcome!

This is an excellent video to use to teach Global Development in A-level sociology, personally I would use it in the introductory lesson to the module.

Below i provide a brief summary of some of the key points of this documentary:

Sorting trash in Kenyan slum

After a brief introduction we get to see the first part the day of one guy in Kenya who works in waste management.

He gets up at 4.00 a.m and then spends several hours sorting through trash which is delivered from the nearby affluent suburbs and shopping areas. He sorts out food for his pigs and separates out any useful items which he can sell on.

There are a lot of people working sorting waste, many of them there because they have no other option. Many of them also eat waste food they find there.

Recycling cans in New York

The video now hops over to America where it follows another guy who also gets up at 4.00 a.m. to collect cans and bottles, which he then sorts to sell – there’s a good market in recycled containers it seams in New York – he can make $75 a day doing this.

We also get an insight into his life history – he used to be homeless, and he reminds us that many Americans are just one pay check away from falling into a similar situation.

Back in the slum

In this third section we see the guy in Kenya sorting out some of the cartons he’s found at the dump – he gets someone else to wash them and then he sells them on, making a daily income of $3-4 which is enough for him to feed his family, and lifts him above Kenya’s formal poverty line.

The U.S ‘Cultural Waste and Recycling Centres’

Back in the United States – we’re taken to a recycling centre, a community initiative that gives ‘canners’ support in their recycling endeavours – which plays a crucial part in helping them stay resilient.

The video also gets a bit more analytical at this point – there are 600 billionaires in the United States, but 40 million Americans live in poverty. But poverty is much worse in Kenya – it takes the average Kenyan 20 years to earn the annual salary of the average American.

There’s also a short interview with an anthropologist who reminds us that waste is cultural – a lot of things are only trash because we label them as such – and we take a trip to one guy’s museum of trash to drive the point home – he’s got thousands of dollars worth of perfectly good stuff he’s collected from what other people have thrown away!

Reflecting on Inequality

The documentary now highlights inequalities in the two countries – by taking a trip to the mall in Kenya – one gets the impression that the government there is investing more in malls for the wealth than in education and health for the poor.

In America we visit a guy who makes art from trash – one piece (which sold for a small fortune) adorns the wall of the one the most expensive apartments in New York – how’s that for irony.

Final section

in this section the two main men in the video give their views on inequality – both seem quite wise – neither think inequality is a good thing and would use our financial resources to give more enabling support to those in poverty, a leg up if you like to better help them help themselves.

Discussion Questions

Why do you think the video focuses on trash as a means of exploring inequality?

Have these two men found an effective solution (sorting and selling trash) to lift themselves out of poverty?

Do you agree with the two men in this video. Should our global resources be used to help the poor?

Visualising Global Wealth Inequalities

Global inequality is one of the core themes in the Global Development option within A-level sociology, and visual infographics are a useful way of making global inequalities easier to understand.

This post focuses on global wealth inequalities.

Details of how wealth is measured are included at the bottom of this post.

The Distribution of Wealth by Country

Global Private Household Wealth stood at $400 trillion in June 2020 according to Credit Suisse’s latest 2020 Global Wealth Report.

(This was almost 9% increase on the previous year, and continued a long term trend of increasing wealth over the last two decades.)

If this wealth were distributed evenly, each individual adult in the world would have a total net worth of almost $80 000. However, the distribution is far from equal!

The map below shows the median net private wealth per household in different countries in 2019, according to Credit Suisse.

From the figure we can see that generally:

  • North America, Western Europe and Australian households have an average wealth of over $100 000.
  • Brazil, China and Russia (three of the BRIC nations) have an average household wealth of between $25 000 to $100 000
  • Much of Asia and Latin American and North Africa have an average household wealth of between $5000 to $25 000
  • Most of Sub Saharan Africa and Afghanistan have an average household wealth of less than $5000.

NB – you can look at practically any map of any development indicator (health/ education/ peacefulness etc.) and you’ll find that poor health, low levels of education and high levels of conflict are correlated with low levels of wealth. There are some notable exceptions, but as a general rule, low levels of household wealth means poor social development!

(For example, one notable exception is the USA which is very wealthy but severely socially underdeveloped, possibly because of such high levels of relative poverty within the country)

Global Wealth by Country

The infographic below by Visual Capitalist (link below) shows us the amount of wealth per country:

Top wealthiest countries

Visual Capitalist also produced the following table:

RankCountryRegionTotal Wealth ($B, 2019)% Global Share
#1🇺🇸 United StatesNorth America$105,99029.4%
#2🇨🇳 ChinaChina$63,82717.7%
#3🇯🇵 JapanAsia-Pacific$24,9926.9%
#4🇩🇪 GermanyEurope$14,6604.1%
#5🇬🇧 United KingdomEurope$14,3414.0%
#6🇫🇷 FranceEurope$13,7293.8%
#7🇮🇳 IndiaIndia$12,6143.5%
#8🇮🇹 ItalyEurope$11,3583.1%
#9🇨🇦 CanadaNorth America$8,5732.4%
#10🇪🇸 SpainEurope$7,7722.2%
#11🇰🇷 South KoreaAsia-Pacific$7,3022.0%
#12🇦🇺 AustraliaAsia-Pacific$7,2022.0%
#13🇹🇼 TaiwanAsia-Pacific$4,0621.1%
#14🇨🇭 SwitzerlandEurope$3,8771.1%
#15🇳🇱 NetherlandsEurope$3,7191.0%
All Other Countries$56,58515.7%
Global Total$360,603100.0%
Top 15 wealthiest countries.

The above table is kind of useful, when you see that the USA controls almost a quarter of the world’s wealth, but with only around 4% of the world’s population, that alone can give you a sense of the inequality, especially when it’s leading China in P2 whose population is more than double that of the United States.

NB – What country wealth statistics don’t show is how equally (or unequally in the case of America) wealth is distributed in a country, which is something we will consider later.

The Global Wealth Pyramid

A second visualisation Credit Suisse Produce is the global wealth pyramid

The Global Wealth Pyramid

This pyramid shows us that:

  • The top 1% of the population, or just 52 million people (those worth more than $1 million) control 43.4% of the world’s wealth
  • The next 11.4%, or 590 million people (those worth from $100 000 to $1 million) control 40.5% o the world’s wealth
  • The next 34%, or 1.7 billion people (those worth from $10 000 to $100 000) control 14.7% of the world’s wealth
  • The poorest 53%, or 2.7 billion people (those worth less than $10 000) control only 1.4% of the world’s wealth.

The richest 1% own 43% of the world’s wealth

The visualisation below (courtesy of the global inequalities blog, link below) does a good of showing how few people control how much wealth, and how many people control so little:

Wealth controlled by Ultra High Net Worth Individuals

The graphic below zooms in closer on the very very wealthy. We see that those worth more than $30 million, just 0.002% of the world’s population control over 7% of the world’s wealth!

Definition of ‘Net Worth’ or Wealth

According to the Global Wealth Report, Net worth, or “wealth,” is the value of financial assets plus real assets (principally housing) owned by households, minus their debts.

This figure includes the net value of all the assets a household owns if sold and their private pension fund assets. The figure does not include any state entitlements/ benefits or state debts.

Discussion Question:

What is the best way to visualise global wealth inequalities?

Sources

  • Credit Suisse: Global Wealth Report 2020, linked above
  • Global Inequalities blog – does a nice job visualising some of the stats in the Credit Suisse Report. NB the stats above are from the 2019 report, but that’s not too long ago and I like them!
  • Visualcapitalist – produced the excellent football like visualisation of wealth inequalities by country!

The impact of Coronavirus on Global Wealth

This post focuses on a recent report produced by Credit Suisse. It is primarily written for students studying the Global Development option for A-level sociology, and is meant to serve as an update on Global inequalities!

In 2019, Privately Owned Global Wealth had grown to $399 trillion, an almost 9% increase on the previous year, according to Credit Suisse’s latest 2020 Global Wealth Report, which focuses on both wealth trends to 2019 and the impacts of Coronavirus on wealth up until June 2020.

That 9% increase from 2018 continued a long term trend of increasing wealth over the last two decades. In the year 2000, global wealth stood at $118 trillion (at current US prices) and has risen on average by 6.6% per annum since then, with a significant decrease (and subsequent recovery) in 2008 with the financial crisis.

NB – wealth is not distributed evenly and the map below shows the median net private wealth per household in different countries in 2019,

The impact of Coronavirus on Global Wealth

The Global Wealth Report notes that to June 2020 Coronavirus has cost the global economy around $8 trillion, in terms of what economic growth was predicted to be.

We see a rapid decline in global wealth per person January to March, when Coronavirus was taking hold, but then a recover, as governments around the world stepped in with stimulus packages.

The chart above also shows you that we’ve basically just had zero growth in wealth since from 2019 to June 2020.

However, you can see that by June 2020 there has been a decline in wealth per person of around $3 000, compared to projected growth which never happened!

The Economic Impact of Coronavrius on Different Regions

The chart below shows the impact by region

The impact of Coronavirus up until June 2020 seems to have been minimal on most regions if we compare the 2019 projections with the actual figures to June 2020.

The global average decline in wealth to June 2020 is – 2%, and most regions have seen around a 2% decline, compared to what was expected, overall we simply have almost 0 global growth compared to an anticipated 2% increase!

There are minor variations across regions, but nothing too significant according to the figures above!

There are significant variations by country

However, if we look at the impact of Coronavirus on wealth by country, we do see significant differences emerging:

The above chart shows us that to June 2020 the UK’s average household wealth declined by 7%, while China’s increased by 4%. Meanwhile the USA has seen almost no change to private household wealth!

This infographic shows the biggest percentage gains and losses per individual by country

We can see some dramatic variation here, with Brazil and South Africa’s per person wealth declining by around 25%, supposedly due to Coronavirus, while quite an eclectic mixture of countries have seen their individual wealth increase by 5%

NB – the figures look more dramatic if you look t the dollar amounts:!

Projections for future wealth growth

The Global Wealth Report is optimistic about future growth potential in most regions, especially India and China

How valid is this data?

NB – this report is latest based on available data, but it was written before the latest wave of lockdowns in November 2020.

The report is very clear that these global wealth trends could change dramatically depending on how Coronavirus and the societal reaction to it develops!

You need to be sceptical I think about the focus of this report – it is on global wealth, rather than global poverty, if you look at the later (poverty not wealth) you realise that there are millions of people around the world who are being pushed into poverty because of Coronavirus (more of that later!) – but you miss out on this in this report because it’s been written mainly (I think) for a Western audience, and you get the impression that’s everything is OK.

This report by Alianz and the World Bank gives you a different impression, talks of a ‘wealth buffer’ which insulates the wealthy from the worst effects of the economic downturn caused by the Pandemic, but it also talks about how millions of those towards the bottom are being pushed into extreme poverty.

You might remember that above the Credit Suisse report shows a negative 2% economic growth rate in Africa, then says nothing else about it – well, that basically means a LOT more people pushed into poverty, which is what the Allianz/ World Bank report focuses on!

Note: Definition of ‘Net Worth’ or Wealth

According to the Global Wealth Report, Net worth, or “wealth,” is the value of financial assets plus real assets (principally housing) owned by households, minus their debts. This figure includes the net value of all the assets a household owns if sold and their private pension fund assets. The figure does not include any state entitlements/ benefits or state debts.

If that wealth average wealth were distributed equally then every adult would have around $77 000. H

In 2019, Privately Owned Global Wealth had grown to $399 trillion, an almost 9% increase on the previous year, and continuing a long term trend of increasing wealth over the last two decades.

Coronavirus has made the rich richer and the poor poorer

30% of those with savings of more than £12000 before Coronavirus have seen their savings increase since the pandemic, compared to only 10% of those with no savings.

This is because the closing of so many shops and restaurants has meant high income households have had reduced opportunities to spend their money and so have been forced to save.

It’s also because those able to work from home are more likely to have higher savings rates and home-workers have been the least impacted in terms of income by Coronavirus.

Coronavirus has increased the debt levels of the poorest

21% of those in lowest income households have had to increase debt in the last few months compared to only 13% of those in the highest income households:

Relevance to A-level sociology

This is a good example of statistical research which suggests broad support for the Marxist view of society.

Sources

The above statistics are taken from a recent ‘Rainy Days’ report by the Resolution Foundation.

The report examines the long term trend in inequality in the UK and then the impact Coronavirus has had on inequality.

Please click here to return to the main ReviseSociology home page!

Winners and losers from the cancellation of A-level exams

The evidence suggests that if you’re white and middle class you’ll do OK out of A-levels being cancelled, not so if you’re BAME or poor.

The Coronavirus may not discriminate, but the social response to it probably will, and this could well be the case with the recent decision by the DFE to cancel A-level exams.

Universities will now rely on a combination of GCSE results and predicted grades from schools and colleges in order to determine which students qualify for which degree courses, and this will benefit some more than others.

The winners

If you’ve been working hard all year and had a decent mock exam grade (which would have been sat very recently in most centers) then you’re predicted grade should at least match the grade you would have got.

If you suffer from exam stress, dyslexia or any other ‘condition’ that may mean you under perform in exams compared to your ability, then your predicted grade may even be higher than what you would have got.

If you’ve got an unconditional offer from a university for the course you want, and you’re happy enough with your predicted grades then you’ve just been gifted two free months of your life, although you may not be able to do what you want with those two months, like going outside for example!

In general I’d say that the next two months of A-level teaching are actually the most pointless thing in terms of useful skills and knowledge – you would have literally spent two months cramming knowledge into your head and learning exam technique, both skills being utterly useless in any real life content, work or otherwise.

You’ve been spared that, however….

The losers

This article in The Guardian suggests that predicted grades tend to be lower for black and minority ethnic students and for those from poorer backgrounds, compared to those students from white middle class backgrounds.

The argument is that teacher stereotypes, or labelling if you like, mean that BAME student’s grades are under-predicted, and so these students tend to do better than expected in exams, an opportunity now lost to them. (Yes they may get a chance to sit some kind of exam in the Autumn, but that might be too late).

The article further suggests that those who are privately educated are more likely to have an unconditional offer and that those with ‘pushy parents’ are more likely to negotiate their children higher predicted grades from the schools, drawing on cultural capital theory.

And I do feel for home educated or self-studying students, who probably have no record of past achievement and no mock exams to fall back on, especially if they messed up their GCSEs and are returning to A-levels maybe after taking a year or a few months out.

Conclusions

The DFE, exam boards and UCAS are all aware of how a university entrance system based on predicted grades discriminates against certain students, I just hope they put measures in place to combat this.

We won’t know how effective any anti-discriminatory measures have been until we can compare the ‘results’ and UCAS entrance stats for this year with last year, assuming that data will even be published?

Social Problems facing Britain in 2020…

My top 14 social problems facing Britain in 2020:

  1. Pollution and the environment
  2. Inequality, low pay and poverty
  3. Inflation/ cost of living/ especially housing
  4. unemployment and underemployment
  5. Race relations
  6. The Ageing population
  7. Crime, law and order
  8. Mental health – depression/ anxiety (/suicide)
  9. Sexual inequalities
  10. Drug and alcohol abuse
  11. Lack of faith (trust) in government
  12. Immigration/ overpopulation

This is a ‘first thoughts’ off the top of my head ranking based on a combination of what I know about these social issues and social theory/ research evidence.

Also, this isn’t comprehensive – I’ve taken the above from the Ipsos-Mori September 2019 survey – so really this is my ‘top 14’ social issues as identified by 1027 members of the British public in 2019.

This is what the British public thought were the most important social issues in September 2019….

Actually not quite, I’ve added in mental health and sexual inequalities just because I think they deserve a mention, unlike at least 95.5% of the British population sampled last September!

A broadly Marxist Rationale for my Ranking

I’ve put pollution and the environment at number 1 as if we don’t stop living within planetary limits soon we’re just lining up more social problems in the future – the more we consume and pollute the fewer resources there are to go round and the fewer resources the more inequality, the higher the cost of living, the more social unrest and so on.

Inequality comes second following Wilkinson and Picket’s work in the Spirit Level – inequality seems to be the number one variable correlated with all other social problems. I’ve included poverty with inequality as (simplifying to the extreme) in Britain we only really have relative poverty, which is a function of inequality.

At three is the ultimate economic challenge – keeping the cost of living down. I think this is fundamentally related to inequality – for example landlords owning several houses and renting them out make themselves rich while impoverishing their tenants.

I’ve included unemployment and underemployment at four as these is these are not only fundamentally linked to inequality, but also a future challenge as technological change strips out jobs from the economy.

Race relations goes in at five because Racism does still exist and it is the most common tool for scapegoating the causes of all other social problems. If we can just get rid of silly notions of Racism, the masses might direct their attention at the elites who create most of our social problems.

The ageing population is next as it’s something of a ticking time bomb – we haven’t yet addressed as a society how we are going to pay for the increased health and social care costs of people in old age in the context of a less favourable dependency ratio in future years.

To skip to the final two, I regard these as positive things – lack of faith in national politics I think is a necessary precursor to more decentralized, autonomous solutions to social problems and as to immigration and migration more generally, not only can this solve the ‘problem’ of the ageing population, I think in general we need more of it – if nothing else to combat the problem of racial prejudice!

How equal are men and women in the UK?

The gap between men and women in terms of pay, and representation in big companies is decreasing rapidly, but significant inequalities remain in both of these areas, domestic life, and chances of being a victim of sexual assault. All of this is despite the fact that girls have been outperforming boys at GCSE (and above) for decades. The only area of life where there seems to be equality is reported happiness levels, yet women still report slightly higher anxiety levels.

This post summarizes statistics from six key areas of social life:

  • income – the gender pay gap.
  • domestic life – amount of time spent on leisure and unpaid work
  • economic power – the proportion of women represented on the boards of large companies
  • education – GCSE results
  • crime – the number of men and women who have been victims of sexual assault.
  • well being – reported levels of  happiness and anxiety.

There are a lot statistics available on gender inequality (both in the UK and worldwide) and here I’ve tried to select just six key statistics that summarize the state of gender inequality today.

I’ve kept the data to a minimum so as to avoid information overload, as this post is written as part of an introduction to A-level sociology for students in their first week of study. I’ve also deliberately selected data that is relevant to the topics students are likely to be studying deeper into the A-level, such as families and households and education, so they can get a first look at it now.

If you want to find out more about trends in gender equality in the U.K. I recommend the U.K. Government’s Gender Equality Monitor, which tracks progress towards gender equality.  This recent report was very much the basis for this post!

NB – you’ll find it easier just read the charts if you click here to get to my Tableau Public page where I’ve stored all of the data visualizations below.

Women’s Income compared to men’s 

The gender pay gap has fallen by about 10 percentage points since 1997, but the pay gap remains at just below 9%. 

Source: ONS: Gender Pay Gap in the UK, 2018.

Number of women running big companies

Source: Hampton-Alexander Review FTSE Women Leaders Improving gender balance in FTSE Leadership, November 2018.

GCSE results 

The 9-4 and 9-5 GCSE pass rates for girls are both approximately 7% higher than the corresponding pass rate for boys.

Source: GCSE and equivalent results: 2017 to 2018 (provisional).

Leisure and unpaid work 


Women report having an hour less leisure time per day and do an hour’s more unpaid work per day than men

Source: ONS analysis of UK Harmonised European Time Use Survey (HETUS), 2015.

Chances of being a victim of sexual assault

While the rates of BCS reported sexual assaults against females have fallen significantly, females are still more than three times more likely to be victims than males.

Source: ONS.

Happiness and anxiety 


Despite all of the above the reported happiness levels are almost identical for both males and females, and female anxiety levels are only slighter higher than male anxiety levels!

Source: ONS, Personal well-being estimates in the UK: October 2016 to September 2017.

Conclusions/ about this post

Hopefully you found this post useful, writing it has been a bit of a learning curve as I’m currently teaching myself how to use Tableau to do data visualizations.

Bank of mum and dad: increasingly important for getting on the property ladder!

Young adults have become increasingly dependent on financial support from their parents to finance their first house purchases.

Those without access to parental support (i.e. those with poorer parents) are less likely to be able to get on the property ladder. 

This is according to the latest research from the Resolution Foundation with examines the impact on parental wealth on home ownership, exploring the relationship between parental support and the ability of young adults today to purchase their first property. 

Some of the key findings of the report were as follows:

The children of wealthier parents are much more likely to become homeowners themselves: from the mid 2000s, children with parents with property wealth were three times as likely to become homeowners as those without property wealth. 

The children of wealthier parents become homeowners at an earlier age than those of less wealthy parents. 

The report also found that:

    • This relationship continues to hold even once someone’s salary, their education, where they live and whether they are in a couple or not are all taken into account.
    • The relationship between parental wealth and their children’s homeownership has risen over time.

The significance of these statistics:

This is bleak reading for anyone interested in economic equality, because this trend suggests that what’s occurring here is the reproduction of class inequality.

The findings of this report will probably come as no surprise to anyone, it just seems to be confirming what is really damn obvious!

This report is probably a good example of a document that’s been produced because of a value-agenda (so the choice of topic is not value free!) and yet the research is probably ‘objective’ in the sense that it’s difficult to bias these figures…. finances tend to be ‘hard statistics’ and it’s difficult for researchers to skew them, even if they want a certain outcome!

Nevis: A Tax Haven Preventing Positive Globalization?

The Island of Nevis is the most secretive tax haven in the world. Nevis is a solitary volcano in the Caribbean, with a population of just 11, 000, notorious for its involvement in Britain’s biggest ever tax fraud, as well as having been implicated in many other sordid financial scams of modern times, such as when 620, 000 Americans were fleeced out of $220 million in a pay-day loan scam.

tax-haven-map.jpg

Despite its tiny population, Nevis is also home to six domestic banks, one international bank, 18 insurance managers, and dozens of registered law firms. In fact Nevis might well have the highest lawyer to person* ratio on earth.

Nevis is becoming increasingly popular with the world’s rich: since 2012 its financial services sector has grown by a quarter.

Nevis specializes in letting its clients create and register corporations with greater anonymity than almost any other place on planet earth:  even the island’s own corporate land registry doesn’t know who owns the corporations registered there.

Companies benefit from further protections: if you suspect a company of having acquired some of its assets illegally, you have to file $100 000 bond with the courts in Nevis before initiating legal proceedings, in order to make sure that no-one makes frivolous claims.

Not that you would have much luck filing a claim against a company registered on the island: Nevis’ regulator holds no information on who owns the companies registered there, or on who owns its companies’ assets.

Then there’s the fact that anyone disclosing financial information without a court order is liable for a $10 000 fine and up to a year in prison. This would serve to put of investigative journalists.

All of this poses a problem for authorities wishing to tackle global crime: if Nevis continues to guarantee anonymity over ownership of assets then there is no way for global crime fighting agencies to trace whether or not those assets have been acquired illegally.

A further problem is that it makes it more difficult for nation states to track down whether large corporations or individuals are dodging their taxes.

Relevance of this case study to A-level sociology 

The existence of tax havens demonstrates the absence of global social norms pertaining to tax, and to the relative powerlessness of Nation States to control flows of global capital.

It also suggests support for the Marxist/ World Systems Theory view of globalization. The existence of Tax Havens allows the richest to keep their wealth, perpetuating global inequality. They certainly don’t benefit the global poor!

*some research suggests that ‘lawyer’ and ‘person’ are mutually exclusive categories. Although there’s no actual evidence to back this up.

Sources: The Week July 2018.

This post will also be published to the steem blockchain. 

Exploring Inequality in Life Expectancy in the United Kingdom

What are the causes and consequences of low life expectancy in the UK?

Get rich or Die Young (BBC, Panorama 2018) explores the causes and consequences of low life expectancy in Teeside, in the North East of the United Kingdom. It focuses on the experiences of three people who are living through three of the main causes of low life expectancy: smoking and poor diet, drug addiction and mental ill health.

The documentary is hosted by the ever-reliable Richard Bilton, who seems to be the BBC’s go-to guy for these social injustice documentaries.

Teeside has the largest life expectancy gap in the country. Those in poorest boroughs of the region have a life expectancy of just 67, the same as Ethiopia. Those living just a couple of miles away in the wealthiest boroughs live until 85, 4 years above the national average.

This means that the life expectancy gap between the poorest and richest boroughs in Teeside is 18 years.

The inequalities are literally written on the gravestones, where in some graveyards, 60 years seems like a ‘good innings’

low life expectancy UK.png

Richard Bilton points out early on that most babies in the U.K are born healthy, but a baby’s health is shaped by what comes next, and a crucial variable which influences health and life expectancy is wealth, or lack of it.

He also suggests more than once that leading an unhealthy life is not simply a matter of individuals making poor choices. Rather, being socialised into poverty restricts the kinds of choices people can make, and in extreme cases results in stress which seems to literally take 10 years off an individual’s life.

The first of the three emotionally charged case studies focuses on a 46-year-old male whose life is nearly over. He has fluid on the lungs, sciatica, and type 2 Diabetes, among other things, and is dependent on breathing apparatus.

get rich die young.png

There’s quite a lot of footage of his 4/5 kids musing about how he hasn’t got much time left…. And I guess that’s the ultimate negative consequence of his dying in his late 40s: a partner left to bring up 4 distraught kids on her own

His Illnesses are down to smoking and poor diet: people are four times more likely to smoke than those from wealthy areas.

The second case study focuses on a gran mother who is bringing up her daughters two children because she seems to be a hopeless crack addict. We see an interview with the drug-addict daughter who just appears to have given up the will to look after her kids. (Possibly because she knows her mother will do it?).

Drug deaths in Stockton have doubled in a decade and nationally they are substantially higher in the more deprived areas.

The grandmother attends a support group for grandparents who look after their grandkids because their children are drug addicts…. And we can see clearly how the stress she’s under is reducing her own life expectancy.

Finally, the documentary visits a middle-aged woman suffering from depression and anxiety who has made multiple (unsuccessful) suicide attempts. Suicides are twice as common in the poorest areas.

One of the problems here is that mental health services have been cut. There’s nowhere for her to go. If it were not for a voluntary support group, she’d probably be another early death statistic.

So how do we tackle low life expectancy? 

This is a very short section towards the end of the documentary which visits a school in a deprived area. The headmistress of the Carmel Education Trust thinks she can turn things around. She doesn’t believe the poor-health life path of those in poverty is fixed.

She believes that therapies help kids to better at school, and if they do better at school, they get better jobs, and that seems to be the key to a healthier life…

NB the documentary doesn’t actually go into any depth about what these ‘therapies’ are. This section is very much tagged on the end of the gawp-fest.

Final critical appraisal of the documentary

What I like about the documentary is that it’s rooted in what you might call micro-statistics. It ‘digs down’ into the sub-regional variations in life expectancy in Teeside. It even distinguishes between life expectancy and health life expectancy.

If You rely on the Office for National Statistics own accessible data on life expectancy, you don’t even see these variations!

However, the documentary spends too much time ‘gawping’ at the poor sick poor people rather than analysing the deeper structural causes of poverty related health problems.

There’s no real mention of the longer term historical downturn in the North East of the U.K. which highlights the high levels of unemployment, for example.

I’m also not entirely convinced by the (too brief) look at the solutions on offer. Therapeutic interventions in schools was offered up as the solution. Relying on the education sector yet again to sort out this social mess of extreme in equality in life expectancy just isn’t practical.

Having said that, if the mission of the documentary was to alter us to the extent of the problem and shock us, I think it did a reasonable job overall.

Possibly most shocking of all is that men in the poorest boroughs have a life expectancy of just 64: the average man doesn’t even make it to retirement age. And this isn’t the only region in the UK where this happens. In the very poorest regions, men work hard, pay their National Insurance, and get nothing back for it. There’s something not quite right about that!

Ultimately, I agree with the message the documentary puts out, even if it gets somewhat lost in the emotionalism of the three case studies: the reasons people die young are complex, but the most common reason is poverty – low income limits your choices. There is also no reason why anyone should be getting a chronic illness and dying in their 40s. All of the likely soon-to-be deaths in the documentary are entirely preventable!

Relevance to A-level sociology

This documentary offers some us some qualitative insights into the causes, but mainly the consequences of low life expectancy in the poorest regions of the United Kingdom and so should be relevant to the ‘ life expectancy and death rates‘ aspect of the families and households module.

It’s also quite a useful reminder of how we need qualitative data to give us the human story behind the statistics.

If you want to find out more about variations in life expectancy in the UK, you might like this interactive map as a starting point.