Take a Stand on Austerity

The Take a Stand (TAS) on Austerity initiative is one of several TAS initiatives coordinated by the Critical Anthropology of Global Health Special Interest Group (SIG). Committee members of the TAS on Austerity initiative drafted the following brief and working bibliography in 2014 with the intent that fellow members of CAGH and SMA, as well as other anthropologists, would actively participate in providing input and feedback.

What follows here is a living document that will be enhanced over the coming months through the ideas and contributions of fellow anthropologists.

Please take the time to review the brief and bibliography, and to share with us your comments on the discussion board below. Correspondence may also be directed to committee chair Megan Carney, megcarney@gmail.com. 

Take a Stand on Austerity: Brief from the Critical Anthropology of Global Health SIG

The global financial crisis spanning 2007-2009 prompted national governments around the world, and notably many within the European Union, to implement austerity measures. Similar to structural adjustment programs (SAPs) implemented throughout the developing world since the 1980s, much of the pressure to adopt and enforce austerity measures has been levied by global financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank. Despite any original claims that these measures were intended as ostensibly “short-term” solutions, slow economic recovery or worsening economic conditions in many of the countries impacted by financial crisis has led to an increased number and stringency of measures.

Although purporting to cut unnecessary bureaucratic spending through austerity, government officials tend to exact the largest cuts on public sector programs and systems – including education and health – that provide social services and oversee social welfare. These reductions in spending crosscut all segments of society but unquestionably render the most detrimental consequences for the poor whose wellbeing and basic survival is tethered to the support they receive through public systems and safety nets. Austerity measures deny people these essential forms of social support while also eliminating the very programs that people need during economic crisis (McDaid and Knapp 2010; McDaid, et al. 2013; Pfeiffer and Chapman 2010; Weaver and Munro 2013).

The human costs of austerity should not be underestimated. Health decline has been a ubiquitous outcome of austerity measures in recent years (Arie 2013a; Arie 2013b; Ayuso-Mateos, et al. 2013; Brand, et al. 2013; McKee, et al. 2012; Pearce 2013; Porter 2013; Stuckler and Basu 2013). This relates both to direct cuts on health services and to cuts in other public sectors (Borisch 2014). These include housing, transportation, education, and retirement and pensions, among others. Many European governments for instance, have since defunded immigration integration programs that were explicitly focused on removing barriers to social inclusion by helping refugees, asylum seekers, and other migratory groups to connect with housing, employment, education, and healthcare (Collett 2011). Since the flood of austerity measures in the EU, there have been significant increases in physical and mental health problems including sharp increases in the number of diagnoses of infectious diseases and suicides (Caraher 2013; De Vogli 2013; Fountoulakis, et al. 2013). These data suggest that not only are people having to cope with fewer resources in overseeing wellbeing, but that the anxieties associated with doing so have profound negative effects for people’s outlook on the world and overall psychological disposition.

Critical social scientists have noted that the effects of austerity are never gender-neutral. Across the globe, women bear the costs of austerity disproportionately to men and make “invisible adjustments” to the forms of economic restructuring that are imposed on them (Beneria and Feldman 1992). Anxiety and stress from these invisible adjustments translates to worse health outcomes for women (Breman and Shelton 2007; Kickbusch, et al. 2005; Sparr 1995; Stevens, et al. 2012). In addition, economic restructuring in the form of structural adjustment and austerity has been connected to increased rates of gender-based violence.

These cuts to social spending rendered through austerity measures disrupt the very notions of entitlement and social rights, while also stripping people of basic human rights (Cox 1998; Gaffney 2013). Anthropologists are equipped with the methodological and analytical expertise to underscore the lived experiences of austerity and to convey to policymakers the overall social destructiveness of austerity cultures. The Critical Anthropology of Global Health Special Interest Group of the Society for Medical Anthropology calls for anthropologists across our sub-disciplines to take a stand against austerity and to work collaboratively in developing strategies for policy-oriented research and public outreach. 

Working Bibliography

Arie, S.

2013a  Has austerity brought Europe to the brink of a health disaster? Bmj-British Medical Journal 346.

2013b  Health effects of Greece’s austerity measures are “worse than imagined,” report researchers. Bmj-British Medical Journal 346.

Ayuso-Mateos, J. L., P. P. Barros, and R. Gusmao

2013    Financial crisis, austerity, and health in Europe. Lancet 382(9890):391-392.

Beneria, L., and S. Feldman, eds.

1992    Unequal Burden: Economic Crises, Persistent Poverty, and Women’s Work. Boulder & Oxford: Westview Press.

Borisch, B.

2014    Public health in times of austerity. Journal of Public Health Policy 35(2):249-257.

Brand, H., et al.

2013    Austerity policies in Europe-bad for health. Bmj-British Medical Journal 346.

Breman, A., and C. Shelton

2007    Structural Adjustment Programs and Health. In Globalization and Health. S. Wamala and I. Kawachi, eds. Pp. 219-233.

Caraher, M.

2013    A Challenge for Public Health Nutrition in a Time of Austerity. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism 63:126-126.

Collett, E.

2011    Immigrant Integration in Europe in a Time of Austerity. Migration Policy Institute.

Cox, R. H.

1998    The consequences of welfare reform: How conceptions of social rights are changing. Journal of Social Policy 27:1-16.

De Vogli, R.

2013    AUSTERITY IN EUROPE Unemployment and suicides during the recession in Italy. Bmj-British Medical Journal 347.

Fountoulakis, K. N., et al.

2013    AUSTERITY IN EUROPE First reliable data suggest a possible increase in suicides in Greece. Bmj-British Medical Journal 347.

Gaffney, A.

2013    Austerity and the Unraveling of European Universal Health Care. Dissent 60(2):11-15.

Kickbusch, I., K. A. Hartwig, and J. M. List

2005    Globalization, Women, and Health in the 21st Century. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

McDaid, D., and M. Knapp

2010    Black-skies planning? Prioritising mental health services in times of austerity. British Journal of Psychiatry 196(6):423-424.

McDaid, D., et al.

2013    Health protection in times of economic crisis: Challenges and opportunities for Europe. Journal of Public Health Policy 34(4):489-501.

McKee, M., et al.

2012    Austerity: a failed experiment on the people of Europe. Clinical Medicine 12(4):346-350.

Pearce, J.

2013    Financial crisis, austerity policies, and geographical inequalities in health Introduction Commentary. Environment and Planning A 45(9):2030-2045.

Pfeiffer, J., and R. Chapman

2010    Anthropological Perspectives on Structural Adjustment and Public Health. Annual Review of Anthropology 39:149-65.

Porter, S.

2013    Capitalism, the state and health care in the age of austerity: a Marxist analysis. Nursing Philosophy 14(1):5-16.

Sparr, P.

1995    Mortgaging Women’s Lives: Feminist Critiques of Structural Adjustment. London: Zed Books.

Stevens, L., M. Nolan, and P. Greenberger

2012    Sequestration Is a Women’s Health Issue. Journal of Womens Health 21(12):1219-1221.

Stuckler, D., and S Basu

2013    The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills. New York Basic Books.

Weaver, J., and D. Munro

2013    Austerity, Neo-Liberal Economics, and Youth Suicide: The Case of New Zealand, 1980-2000. Journal of Social History 46(3):757-783.


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