Monday 12 September 2011

Riotous times

I have been citing Tottenham as having the worst male life expectancy in London, 18 years shorter than that in Kensington and Chelsea. What a coincidence that the riots should start in Tottenham, and not in Kensington and Chelsea. Gosh!

There is a close correlation between the geographical distribution of ill health and of crime. Not that one causes the other but that they have common causes. Go to your friendly neighbourhood prison (irony, this is irony) and you find that the inmates are highly likely to have a background of broken families, child abuse, low levels of education and literacy – all of which are linked to poor health, as well as crime. In Chicago, as Daly and Wilson showed, areas characterised by high income inequality had high homicide rates.
For some commentators, there is, of course, no link between poverty and urban unrest – didn’t one handler of stolen goods have a job, and another park his VW round the corner? – this was criminality pure and simple. To misquote Oscar Wilde, the riots were not very pure and their causes are certainly not simple. But poverty plays a role. The Guardian reported that of 1000 rioters going through the magistrate courts only 8.6% were in employment or training, i.e. 91.4% were not. Nationally, NEET is about 10%. No link between poverty and being hauled in for rioting?! In epidemiology we never get associations as big as that: 91% of rioters were NEET versus 10% of non-rioters.

There are exceptions, then, but it is a fair summary to say that people in jobs or education were not caught for rioting. I am being careful, here, just in case people with double firsts from Oxbridge were equally likely to riot but avoided being caught – young chaps doing what young chaps do, don’t you know.

Are you saying, asked one minister, that someone had his education maintenance allowance cut and so he nicked a pair of trainers? The implication is that if you answer “no” to that question you are somehow saying that there is no link between what government does and likelihood of being involved in law breaking. Which of course is garbage. This is not to argue that it is “the cuts”, pure and simple, that did it. Again, neither simple, nor pure. Given the association between NEET and rioting, we are dealing with long standing deep seated problems. The Prime Minister thinks it is slow moral decay, former Prime Minister Tony Blair thinks it isn’t, but the riots are all down to a criminal minority. I think they both had it right years earlier when they talked, not just of crime, but of the causes of crime. I don’t know how you measure moral decay, but we can measure NEET and show the strong link to civil disorder.

Of the riots, we have to ask why there, and why now? There, in Tottenham and the rest, because of long standing problems of deprivation, lack of education and jobs. But why the contagion spread to other areas is not straight forward. But a guess would say, that in these “secondary” areas it was again young people not in NEET who rioted. Why now? Apart from the precipitant of the police shooting of a local man, prospects for young people are getting worse. Living standards, according to the Governor of the Bank of England, will continue to decline; unemployment for young people is approaching the one million mark; in short, people in deprived areas have reason to feel little control over their lives and little prospect for the future. That explains a predisposition but not the exact timing. Prediction is difficult. As one economist said, his predictive models don’t even predict the past, let alone the future. That said, the riots are a strong reminder that the determinants of health and the determinants of other important social “outcomes” overlap. They need action.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, of course, but up to a point. There are other cultural and social factors at work. Disrespect for and blatant breaking of rules appears to be on a big upswing in the UK, not just amongst the socially and econonically excluded but also amongst the privileged - corruption, tax evasion, defiance of police and local authorities. A sense of entitlement and narcissistic behaviour also appear to be cresting. Faith in institutions and hope for the future appear to be fading for all classes. Not all the factors are material or social position related, but of course many are as Sir Marmot contens.