IIn 2005, then-adviser Gordon Brown launched the Children’s Trusts. Each child born in the UK will receive a lump sum of £250 from the government, which will be invested automatically if the parents do not do it themselves. Beneficiaries would be able to withdraw these savings when they were 18, and the policy was deemed useless by some and the Conservatives scrapped it in 2010. But based on new research showing the relationship between assets and well-being, Mr. Brown’s instinct was correct. Having savings makes a huge difference in people’s lives.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation study identifies two worrisome trends in their own right – but more so when linked together. These are financial insecurity and mental distress, both of which have risen sharply over the past decade. The job market is a bright spot in an otherwise bleak picture. But the fact that one million people work on zero-contracting contracts, along with declining levels of benefits, declining home ownership and a doubling of the private rental sector, means that a growing proportion of the population is chronically insecure. One-fifth of adults have savings of less than £700.
Over a similar period, levels of anxiety and depression rose, to the point where 17% of adults prescribed antidepressants in 2017-2018. These cases were concentrated in the poorest parts of northern England, and the 64% growth in prescriptions between 2010 and 2017 outpaced increases in other European countries by large margins. Data shows that poor mental health is more likely to be experienced by financially vulnerable people. Those who were stuck in precarious housing possession, with debt, reported higher levels of symptoms including insomnia and feelings of worthlessness. There is also an association with social isolation.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that not having money keeps people up at night. Reports from across the country about rising levels of hunger are becoming more alarming and extreme. But there are lessons here for policy makers. The danger to individuals and the society in which they live is that people fall into a downward spiral, in which poor mental health results from economic insecurity, and thus increases it by preventing them from working. Already, two-thirds of those claimants report being anxious or depressed. The total cost of mental health services to NHS England is £15 billion annually.
Some of this disease is preventable. Ministers must face the fact that their punitive approach to benefits, and generosity with landlords and employers, has made the lives of many people much more difficult than they needed to. He has shamefully delayed the termination of evictions under Article 21, under which tenants can be evicted at short notice without cause. You must find new financing for debt advice. Labor rights need to be strengthened urgently. Benefits should be increased, and eligibility for free school meals expanded to prevent more people from getting trapped. In the long run, politicians must find ways to rebalance the nation’s wealth and assets toward those who have little or nothing.