Poverty and Disease in the 1950s

Kailyn Houston

“The Epileptic,” by Jean Duplessi-Bertaux (1747-1819).
Henry Barton Jacobs Collection in the Welch Medical Library

There was an overwhelming number of reports expressing the knowledge of the link between poverty and health. One of them include this MOH report. These MOH reports even suggest that simply being ignorant and apathetic played a significant role in what felt like inevitable poverty for so many at the time. There was identifiable links between poverty, urbanization, and decreased health seen throughout these reports. Much like what we have learned in class through our reading materials as well as the documentary, In Sickness and in Wealth, poverty and disease go hand in hand. People that are living closer to or below the poverty line, tend to have employment that leaves them little control over their everyday life financially, physically, and mentally. By having little control, cortisol levels are more actively produced, rather than only being produced in certain situations as stress arises, thus building blockage in the heart. High levels of cortisol along with a number of other effects of having little control over one’s life can vastly affect one’s health and thus their life expectancy. In the early 1950s, a study was conducted by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust that led the people of Britain to believe that poverty was no longer a major issue and that only some pockets were affected by this. Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, there was a stark realization that this was not the case. A 1965 study analyzed the number of Britons relied on National Assistance and found that the 8% of the British population that was living in poverty had now risen to 14%. The continued rise of poverty was strongly reflected in the health differences between socioeconomic classes. Infant death was doubled in the two lowest social classes compared to the highest, illnesses lasted longer in those living closer tot he poverty line, and malnoursihment throughout a family was significantly affected as well. In situations like this, one loses a significant amount of control over their lives as well as the lives of their families. We see through the “diagnosing” and “treatment” of epileptics at this time, just how little individuals had over their own care from epileptic colonies to specialized schools that seemed to know just as much about the condition as anyone else might.

Family Allowance day in London, 1946. The allowance was paid to the mother in order to make sure the money was spent on the children. When it was introduced, mothers received 5 shillings a week for each child apart from the eldest.