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Economic Policy and Public Health: Austerity Literally Kills People


There’s an article in the online New York Times that ties together austerity policies and increases in the death rate from a variety of causes.  By the way, if you don’t want to pay for a subscription to the Times, I think you can get twenty articles a month free…it’s good to know which twenty articles in advance…

The article in question is called “How Austerity Kills” by David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, published May 12, 2013.  The authors used data sets on economic policy and public health from countries all over the world and found, as they expected, that cutting spending on public health raises death rates.  Every country studied showed the same pattern.  Countries that instituted policies targeting newly unemployed people for rehabilitation showed dramatic drops in suicide rates.  Money spent on “humane” policies rebounded two or threefold in economic gains in every country studied.  By contrast, cutbacks or elimination of such policies caused increases in death rates and failure of economic recovery.

The International Monetary Fund, which was responsible for forcing many austerity programs on countries in economic crises, has actually changed their minds about this policy.  In 2012, they formally apologized to the countries affected in the 1997 Asian financial crisis that had followed their policies in return for loans to bail out their ruined economies.  They admitted that their policies had caused an excess of deaths and illness, and stated that they would change.

There is no doubt that money spent on policies that target poor, drug-addicted, homeless, recently imprisoned, or chronically ill people is rewarded by improvements in health and economic welfare for the entire society.  After all, these are the people with the highest death rates and the most misery.  An attitude that such people do not deserve aid because of their crimes, their lifestyle, or even just their national origin is not only misanthropic, but self-defeating.  In contrast, policies that reward those who are already well off have no measurable benefit for society as a whole.

The treatment of syphilis is a good example.  Arguably, syphilis is a disease of sin: you pretty much have to sin, or have marital relations with someone who has sinned.  However, allowing syphilis into the marital bed because of a single mistake by one of the partners prior to marriage is an invitation to disaster and congenital syphilis with its consequent deforming of innocent offspring.  The institution of required syphilis serology for a marriage license is one approach: another is to treat syphilis where-ever and and whenever it is found, and to actively search it out by providing free sexually transmitted disease clinics in the poorest neighborhoods and giving outreach to sex workers (prostitutes.)  I will leave it to your imagination which approach is more likely to eradicate syphilis from society as a whole and result in uncountable benefits for generations to come.

The article may be found here.

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