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Physical and mental health for young children
Physical and mental health for young children

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2 Inequalities in health: socio-historical perspective

Next, you will watch the video Patterns of child health in the past 50 years.

Activity 3 Patterns of child health in the past 50 years

Timing: 10 minutes

While you are watching, think about and note:

  • What is meant by the term ‘inequalities in health’?
  • What it means for babies and children born into families in different circumstances and different geographic areas.
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Video 1 Patterns of child health in the past 50 years
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Socio-economic inequalities in health

You will see on the video that we have known about the differences in illness and death rates between children and adults from richer and poorer families in the UK for a very long time. Babies, children and adults from families with lower incomes in this country are much more likely to suffer from ill health and early death than babies, children and adults from wealthier families. This is what is meant by socio-economic inequalities in health.

The video refers to two important reports. The first one from 1976, the Court Report, Fit for the Future, reviewed children’s health and health services across the country. It found that the poorest children living in inner cities had the highest rates of illness and death, including cot deaths affecting the youngest babies. These children were physically smaller. It pointed out the connection between ill health, especially respiratory and infectious diseases, and poor housing conditions such as overcrowding, lack of access to sufficient water supply, toilet facilities and heating.

The second report, the Black Report, was commissioned in 1977 by the Labour government as the Research Working Group on Inequalities in Health under the chairmanship of Sir Douglas Black, President of the Royal College of Physicians. Its report in 1980, Inequalities in Health, was largely dismissed by the new Conservative government and very few copies were made available. However, Penguin later published a paperback version, meaning it reached a wider readership (Townsend et al., 1992).

The report showed that the lower the socioeconomic status people had, the higher their risk of ill-health and early death. This affected babies and children as much as adults. For example, babies aged from one month to a year of fathers working in unskilled jobs had death rates four to five times higher than those of fathers working in professional jobs. Not only that, but the inequalities were widening. And the causes were still the same: low income, poor nutrition, poor living conditions especially overcrowding, and poor working conditions. However, the racial aspects of inequalities in health were poorly examined and the report did not do race justice. While the authors acknowledged skin colour as a significant factor in ‘social and economic disabilities’, ‘race’ is only discussed on a few of the report’s pages (Redhead and Olszynko-Gryn, 2020).