This time next week it will be Christmas Day. For many it will mean excitement, laughter and an opportunity to renew friendships and family bonds over a shared meal and the exchange of presents. For many others however, Christmas Day may not hold the same appeal. For example, the Department for Communities and Local Government published a study earlier in the year which reported that during 2015 there will be 3,569 people sleeping rough in England on any one night. In 2015 there were 68,560 households living in temporary accommodation, of which, 78% (53,480) were families containing children and or a pregnant woman.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports that in 2015, there were 13.5 million people living in poverty, some 21% of the UK population. Whilst over 45% of those in poverty don’t live in a working family, there are 3.8m people who have a job yet are still living in poverty. 1.4m children live in long-term workless households, and 69% of the poorest in society have no savings whatsoever. The only group I could see where there were improving data was for those aged 65 or over. Despite there being a rise of 1.7m more people in this age group over the last decade, there are 400,00 fewer pensioners living in poverty.
These are depressing statistics, and although there is no data available for 2016 it is unlikely the picture will be much improved. The impact on individuals, their families and the wider community such difficulties bring cannot be overstated. For many people, it will mean living with daily unrelenting misery and unhappiness, despair and fear. The London School of Economics published an challenging report last week that looked at factors which impact on people’s happiness and wellbeing. One of the reports authors, Prof Richard Layard, noted that the evidence from their study showed that the things that matter most in terms of our happiness and wellbeing were our social relationships and our mental and physical health.
Whilst acknowledging that poverty, unemployment and homelessness inevitably will have a negative impact on individual’s sense of wellbeing, just simply having more money didn't improve people’s sense of wellbeing and happiness. Having a partner, and someone to share life with was seen to be more valuable than even doubling an individual’s income in the context of raising people's sense of wellbeing and happiness. In acknowledging that experiencing depression and anxiety would have the most negative impact on an individual's wellbeing, the study posed the question as to whether it would be better for the role of the State needing to shift from 'wealth creation' to something they called 'wellbeing creation'.
Layard, who is an international renowned economist, has long campaigned for greater investment in mental health services in the UK. His work has demonstrated that eliminating depression and anxiety would reduce misery by 20% compared to the 5% reduction that would be achieved if the focus was on eliminating poverty. Extra spending on reducing mental illness would be self-financing, as costs would be recovered through higher employment (and increased tax receipts) and a reduction in NHS costs from fewer visits to GPs, in-patient mental health services and hospital A+E departments. Whilst the State has a responsibility for ensuring the availability of appropriate mental health services, families and friends will continue to have a huge role to play in reducing the impact of those experiencing mental health problems. And if you want to know more about dealing with practical issues, this is a great site for help and advice.
I am part of very large family, and today many of our children and grandchildren will be coming for turkey and all the trimmings, present giving (and opening) and hopefully lots of fun to be had together. This is the start of a number of family celebrations which will end this year with a family party on Christmas Eve. However, this time next week, W and I will be up in Scotland to spend a quiet Christmas Day together with just Cello the dog and Billy the parrot for company. It's the first time we have done this, and surprisingly, I'm quite looking forward to it!