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Health inequities in the age of austerity: The need for social protection policies

In this commentary, Arne Ruckert and Ronald Labonté of the University of Ottawa’s School of Epidemiology and Public Health synthesize research on the impact that the 2008 global financial crisis had on social policy and health equity. The researchers focus on the connection between social austerity measures — the social spending restraints adopted by governments around the world in response to slowing economic growth — and health equity measures.

The report lists studies from around the globe that link austerity policies with health outcomes. While some studies show health improving in times of recession (more home-cooked meals, less stress), the authors focus on how austerity affects the pathways to health inequities. For example:

  • people with higher levels of formal education tend to emerge from recessions in better health;
  • people earning lower incomes experience significantly greater barriers to accessing health care once “user fees” are introduced; and
  • people facing protracted employment caused by austerity measures have a higher propensity towards depression and suicide.

Ruckert and Labonté conclude that social protection spending is key to mitigating the negative effects on health, and particularly health equity, during times of government austerity. They argue that the Sustainable Development Goals offer a strong anti-austerity agenda and can be shortened from 17 goals to three:

  1. Quality education
  2. A reduction of inequality
  3. The development of environmentally sustainable consumption and production

They critique the SDGs’ contradictory support of a “business-as-usual” model of economic growth, which they say is irrefutably linked with growing income, wealth and health inequality.

Use this resource to

  • find research support for arguments that cuts in social spending aggravate health inequities
  • better understand the impacts of a neoliberal economic worldview on health and well-being; and
  • incorporate Sustainable Development Goal–oriented thinking in public health programming and policy


Ruckert, A. & Labonté, R. (2017). Health inequities in the age of austerity: The need for social protection Policies. Social Science and Medicine 187 (2017) 306-311. Retrieved from:

Tags: Access to health services, Healthy public policy, Income inequality, Key concepts, Policy analysis, Link

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