Turning food banks into a moral weapon

The government’s food-bank strategy will increase state intervention in poor people’s lives.

The launch of Feeding Britain: A Strategy for Zero Hunger in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland was rather overshadowed by Lady Jenkin’s disparaging comments about the poor’s lack of knowhow in the kitchen. The report, from the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the United Kingdom, of which Jenkin is a member, has much more to say, of course, than simply ‘the poor don’t know how to cook’. According to the report, cooking is only the tip of the iceberg: the poor also can’t handle their money, parent their children, or generally run their own lives without the support of the state and the charity sector, apparently.

Feeding Britain was a long-awaited report from an inquiry set up to investigate the so-called ‘hunger’ problem in the UK. Until very recently, the number of people using food banks was in the low tens of thousands each year. Though rarely acknowledged by today’s critics, there were significant rises in food-bank users under Labour. But it has been under the Lib-Con coalition government that the increases have been most marked. The Trussell Trust, which operates the UK’s biggest network of food banks, suggests that the number of food-bank users now stands at over a million.

Of course, it is hardly surprising, given the recent economic crisis, that the poor have been hit hard over the past few years. From 2004, the postwar trend of ever-rising affluence started to go into reverse, with the standard of living of the poorest sections of society being particularly squeezed. Wages and benefits have not kept pace with increases in the cost of food, fuel and housing. Those in the least well-off decile of the population are now spending 40 per cent of their income on food, fuel and housing, compared to 31 per cent in 2003. Everything costs more when you’re poor, whether it’s a ‘pay as you go’ mobile phone, rates of interest on payday loans, or the pre-pay gas meter. This problem is exacerbated by increasing levels of indebtedness, delays in the payment of benefits, and a stricter regime of sanctions for those deemed not to be seeking work – the biggest reason for referrals to food banks.

What’s interesting is that food banks have been a fixture in the US, Canada and parts of Europe for some time, but the first food bank in the UK didn’t appear until 1999. Why have so many of them sprung up recently? Is it really true that ‘hunger stalks this country’, as the new report claims? Wouldn’t we have noticed our presumably gaunt fellow citizens if this were the case? Is hunger really a ‘simple and devastating fact’ that we must take on trust, as the report insists? There is no robust evidence of people going hungry in the UK, certainly not on the scale claimed. It is inevitable, particularly with the removal of adequate welfare assistance, that referrals to food banks are made opportunistically by job-centre staff, social workers and citizens’ advice centres (among others). But this isn’t necessarily because their clients are, strictly speaking, hungry. And we still don’t even know, despite this inquiry, how many food banks there are beyond the 420 operated by the Trussell Trust.

The report is not without its insights, although they are confined to a preface from the Bishop of Truro, Tim Thornton. His ‘personal perspective’, ignored throughout the rest of the report, argues persuasively that it is the unsticking of the glue that used to hold society together that explains much of today’s reliance on food banks. It is the absence of a ‘self-help infrastructure’ and ‘natural and vital relationships between people’ that means problems of costly food and expensive heating are ‘exacerbated and heightened’. Sadly, the report (and the bishop) is far too enamoured with the welfare state to recognise that what is responsible for the undermining of these ‘natural’ connections between people is not their reduction to economic transactions; rather, it’s that people have been reduced to passive recipients of state and charitable handouts.

Anyway, says the report, what should really concern us is not the facts and figures or the reasons why, but the urgency of the problem and how to tackle it. Its 77 recommendations institutionalise the role of food banks by sucking them into a ‘Feeding Britain’ network-cum-quango that will reach further into the lives of the poor and ‘vulnerable’. The authors advocate a ‘food bank plus’ model, with food acting as a ‘gateway’ to other interventions, such as counselling for gambling ‘addicts’, smokers and drinkers, and life-skills classes on cooking – these will supposedly ‘boost [people’s] resilience’. The real problem, as far as the authors of the report are concerned, is not really hunger at all; rather, it is that there are people who don’t know what’s good for them, who make the wrong choices and live their lives ‘chaotically’. The message is clear: despite the rhetoric about making people more independent, food-bank users will no longer be able simply to take their food parcel and go.

First published in sp!ked

Foodbanks show how left and right fail the poor

Why are people using foodbanks? Why have their numbers increased from tens of thousands three or four years ago, to hundreds of thousands a couple of years ago, to well over a million just last year? What is going on?

There are all sorts of barriers in the way of getting at the answer. The most obvious being the lack of data or research, at least in the UK. But you wouldn’t know it for all the apparent certainty of those who rail against this phenomenon. There are snobbish attitudes about the food poor people eat; greenish arguments about sustainability and wastefulness and leftish sentiments about the cruelties of ‘austerity’ policies to wade through too.

I think few would disagree that we are all that bit harder-up as a consequence of the recent economic crisis, and some more than others. There has been a longstanding rise in world prices and wages have stagnated (and even declined in real terms). A third of those visiting Trussell Trust foodbanks – a network accounting for 400+ of the 1000+ foodbanks in the UK, and practically the sole source of statistics on foodbank use – do so on account of their low income, the loss of a job or their home, or because they’ve got badly into debt.

Also well documented by the network is the impact of recent changes in the welfare system. Whether it’s sanctions imposed by job centres on those apparently not seeking work; the rise in delays in the payment of benefits; or the impact of various recent reforms from the benefit cap to the hated bedroom tax. This is the orthodox, and not wholly unreasonable, explanation. A combination of recession and jolts to the world economy, compounded by changes in the welfare system, are – on the face of things at least – responsible for bulk of the increasing numbers of people relying on food parcels. So far, so uncontroversial.

Indeed the most outrageous, most dissenting view on the foodbank phenomenon, is held to be the official one. The one subscribed to by Lord Freud – the welfare minister who recently caused outrage by suggesting that the minimum wage is too high for the disabled – and by former ministers Michael Gove, Edwina Currie and – at least until he visited a foodbank – Lord Tebbitt. These are hardly the most popular of Tory figures, at least not with their left-liberal critics. But their arguments are still worth considering, not dismissed out of hand as they have been. For Lord Freud foodbanks are like mountains. People visit the former for much the same reason that mountaineers climb the latter – because they are there.

This doesn’t explain why they’re there, but considering there were foodbanks popping up every week until recently, it is surely fair enough to point to the factor of increased supply as at least a part of the explanation. (Whether it is meeting real latent need is another question.) The others have variously doubted the capacities of the poor to run their own lives and budget effectively. An argument, ironically enough, implicitly endorsed by the Trussell Trust with the recent announcement that they are teaming up with TV money man Martin Lewis to offer their clients financial advice as well as food.

But the difference between the two positions obscures what they have in common. What unites both nominal left and right in this discussion is a complete lack of curiosity as to any wider or deeper dynamics. I seriously doubt whether either of their arguments really tell the whole story.

Society has changed. We are the ‘bowling alone’ generation. People are much less likely to rely on the informal institutions of family, friendship networks or community; and church and trade union even less. While it may be that some experience acute shame and embarrassment in visiting a foodbank, and will do all they can to cope on their own, the cultural inhibitors that would once have led to an expectation of self-reliance are much weakened today. The taboos that were prevalent in traditional working class communities expressed the sense that there was something wrong about people relying on the state or on charity rather than on themselves and each other.

The role of this extended state in our lives – with the charitable sector increasingly playing an important intermediary part –is not regarded with the sort of contempt it should be. Rather it is welcomed as a source of ‘support’ for an ever-expanding category of ‘the vulnerable’ with everything from their material to emotional problems. That, it seems to me, is ultimately responsible for the massive increase in foodbanks and food parcel uptake. Those on the right get this more than those on the left. Being conservatives they are more sensitive to change and its problems. They better understand that a reliance on foodbanks is not just an automatic thing but says something important about the people who use them. But people who use foodbanks are not feckless – well most of them aren’t anyway.

It is widely recognised, and on both sides of the argument, that there has been an outsourcing of responsibility for welfare provision. The government has abolished the social fund under which emergency assistance is centrally administered and devolved this function to local authorities – with a fraction of the money and even this will soon be withdrawn. It is cynically divesting itself of responsibility for supporting those in crisis. Locally too, whether it is job centres ‘signposting’ the jobless to foodbanks or local authorities sucking foodbanks and other charitable schemes into their orbit, much the same is happening. Both are passing on the problem to somebody else.

Those of a leftish bent are right to be suspicious of this and to see it as a bad thing. Widespread foodbank use does not, whatever apologists might think, constitute a flourishing of the government’s ‘big society’ idea. But, importantly, it’s not even that the buck is stopping with foodbank clients either. The anti-poor rhetoric that the leftish complain about is actually quite restrained or on the margins of officialdom and always met with outrage. On the contrary, it is self-styled radicals and the foodbank industry itself who are busily portraying the poor, however sympathetically, as pathetic, passive creatures and as such ensuring that those in receipt of food parcels are deemed to have no responsibility for meeting their own needs either. The outsourcing is wholesale.

So for the ‘radicals’, who claim that the real foodbank problem is one of ‘structures’, the poor and vulnerable (a distinction is seldom made) are at the mercy of the impersonal forces of neoliberalism. Similarly, for the often church-run foodbanks, the poor are hopelessly caught up in cycles of poverty, suffering from mental health problems and various other multiple needs from which they must be rescued. Indeed the Trussell Trust describe their foodbank service as being about ‘more than food’ for this very reason. This not only begs the question ‘is food the real problem here?’ but it also makes you wonder who exactly is doing the victimising.

First published in politics.co.uk

Foodbanks Bad, Welfare State Good?

I’ve written a lot – some might say too much – about foodbanks of late. One of the things I’ve been most struck by in reading the commentary and discussion about these sort-of permanent soup kitchens is the sharp distinction drawn between foodbanks and the welfare state. Critics, no doubt rightly, accuse the government of abdicating responsibility for the poorest of the poor; and expecting the charity sector, in the shape of the foodbank, to take up the slack. It is demeaning, they argue, to stand in line for a food parcel. But is it really any less demeaning to stand in a not dissimilar line at the door of a job centre or welfare office. Don’t both turn people into state dependents (or ‘extended state’ dependents if we are to acknowledge the extent to which the voluntary sector is already funded by, and itself dependent upon, the state)? What makes one unspeakably awful and the other okay?

As anybody that knows anything about foodbanks will tell you, the rise in their number is largely down to the fact that one (the food parcel) has replaced the other (the benefit payment). Some people who would previously have stood in line to collect the latter are – as a consequence of sanctions, a delay, reduction or change in eligibility to their benefits – instead collecting their charitable parcel instead. While a cash payment is, of course, preferable to a parcel, the associated stigma is surely only a matter of degree and the circumstances that brought one there indistinguishable. It is highly unlikely to have anything to do with a sudden onset of starvation because this isn’t, in most instances, new need. The parcel recipient isn’t, for the most part, any more hungry than they were before, despite what you might have heard.

You see, for the critics of foodbanks the state – in this case, the welfare state – is regarded as an entirely benign force for good in people’s lives; and not something from which they should be parted. The demeaning experience of dependency is, they assume, either peculiar to the stigma that comes from using foodbanks; or, in the case of benefits dependency, a myth maintained by nasty right wingers intent on blaming so-called skivers and scroungers for their misfortune. The truth, in fact, is that the reform of the welfare state, far from making savings in this supposed age of austerity, and for all the mock outrage of its critics, is actually a fairly feeble (and largely failed) attempt to make it work a little less badly. Because such is the dependency implicit in the workings of the welfare state – akin to that of the charity sector on the state – that the government estimates that £1.4 billion a year is being paid out to just nearly half of Employment Support Allowance claimants alone on account of their mental health problems. That it is now trying to compel the estimated 260,000 claimants with untreated depression and anxiety to seek treatment in a desperate attempt to shake-off some of its more longstanding dependees is at least understandable.

I’m not one to blame dependents for their dependency but neither am I in the business of divesting individuals of responsibility for themselves either. So the problem of welfare dependency is a direct consequence of the interventions of welfarist policies, programmes and professionals into people’s lives; and not – as some of welfare’s critics will have you believe – something that can be blamed on its supposed beneficiaries. Having said that, we shouldn’t be surprised if some live up to those feckless caricatures as a consequence. And both the advocates and critics of welfare tend to be too narrow in their understanding of what dependency is and isn’t. The failure to get to grips with the crippling social and moral problem that is dependency is about more than welfare dependency in this narrow benefits sense. The expansive and therapeutic logic of welfarism is such that not only our welfare but our very ‘wellbeing’ is now deemed the business of the state.

According to David Boyle, independent reviewer of public services, people have been turned into clients of the state by welfarism. We, or they, have become a ‘grateful, passive multitude’ to whom things are done by the state, whether it is the benefits system, the NHS or the way social care is ‘delivered’, doing the doing. The welfare state, he says, is ‘over-professionalised; dismissive and suspicious of the neighbourhood networks which had underpinned people’s lives for generations; undermining informal advice and support; [and] allowing the ties of mutual support to atrophy.’ For instance, the searching for top-down, state-led, managerial solutions to problems that are to do with relationships between people, and the intangibles of care and compassion in our institutions and our communities is to undermine the ‘informality’ and ‘mutuality’ on which they are built. So the recent announcement that there will be a tougher regime of inspections – and the threat of ‘special measures’ – in our old people’s homes as well as our hospitals to protect older and disabled people from the horrors visited on patients at Mid Staffordshire Hospital and elsewhere, points to this wider problem of dependency.

The origins of a number of today’s social problems are in the experience of officious interference in previously informally managed areas of our lives. Whether it’s the smoking ban and so-called healthy living campaigns that affect us all in one way or another; or those communities where a reliance on the state has become so ingrained that the riotous consequences have recently been inflicted by their own offspring – welfare dependency is a problem that itself needs solving. It cannot also be the solution to those self-same problems. This is not to say that dependency in itself is a bad thing. It is who, or rather what, one is dependent on that matters. Indeed we would do better to foster the interdependence of the relationships that make up the informal spheres of family, community and society at large – apart from and independent of the state. Whether it’s the treatment of the elderly, the self-respect of the poor or simply because given the opportunity most of us are pretty robust and self-reliant, and able to make our own decisions about how we live our lives, it is only by the state not stepping in all the time that we have a hope of solving those problems.

First published in Huffington Post

Still Hungry for Answers on Foodbanks

Sometimes the supposed wickedness of one’s opponents can make you lazy. The left have spent the best part of the last 30-odd years blaming the late Margaret Thatcher for their own terminal decline and UK society’s ills to boot. And they’re now keen as custard, if you’ll excuse the culinary reference, on vilifying the views of her associates on the foodbank issue whatever the merits (admittedly scant) of what they have to say. While it may be hard to stomach ex Tory ministers Edwina Currie and Norman Tebbit, spouting ill-considered bile about the inadequacies of the poor – notwithstanding the recent contrite comments of the latter following an encounter with the apparently food-poor; I find it harder still to swallow today’s left-liberal refusal to countenance any alternative view on the subject than their own.

Those who have questioned the government’s critics’ unofficial-official account – accepting, as most do, that the DWP version of events doesn’t stand up to scrutiny – have also met with no little hostility. It is not enough to accept, or even regret, that some people are hard-up and desperate. You have to sign-up without question to the completely counter-factual notion that a million or more people are actually going hungry. Or else be banished from polite company. Robin Aitken, co-founder of the Oxford Food Bank, for instance, is one of the few people involved in the industry (for want of a less cynical term) to question the dominant narrative that there has been an increase in ‘food poverty’. I find this intolerance of any counter-argument or criticism on the grounds that it is itself tantamount to cruelty, about as shocking as the poor-pitying no doubt find the imagined plight of the allegedly hungry masses. And about as anger-inducing as the notion that a compassion-light, cutting-obsessed, Tory-dominated government is inflicting unprecedented deprivations on the ‘vulnerable’ and needy.

But it is only a notion, and a shaky one at that. According to figures provided by the Trussell Trust – a network running more than a third of the country’s foodbanks and, according to Nick Cohen, ‘the Anglican conscience at its active best’ – the increase in take-up of food parcels preceded the coming to power of the apparently ever-so-austere coalition government. (A government, it should be noted, with which the Trust has been in a very public spat of recent.) So there were 2,814 people in 2005/6 – under a Blair government – receiving the at least 3 days worth of non-perishable food that their food voucher entitled them to. This shot up to 9,174 the following year; and again, under the ill-fated Brown government to 13,849, 25,899 and then 40,898 in each of the years that followed. In other words, there was a very significant upward trend in foodbank demand under the preceding Labour governments. In 2010/11 under Cameron’s Lib-Con administration there was even a relative slow down in the rise to 61,468 referrals. It was after this that the trend of high proportionate increases under Labour gave way to high absolute increases, with 128,697 referrals in 2011/12 and 346,992 recorded in 2012/13, under the coalition.

The reasons for the increase are various: including things like unemployment, domestic violence, sickness and delayed wages. Over the winter period, the Trust even began issuing ‘kettle boxes’ for the extremely desperate few who, because they had been made homeless or were just plain broke, couldn’t afford to use a cooker; and ‘cold boxes’ for those who didn’t even have the means to heat water. But, in the latter period at least, there is good reason to point to welfare changes as having the single most sizeable bearing on the rise in foodbanks and the take-up of food parcels. According to the Trust (ever-reliable in recording its foodbank activity), in 2013/14 benefit delays accounted for the highest number of referrals at 31% of the total 913,138. Another 20% were a consequence of ‘low income’, 17% down to benefit changes; and 8% a consequence of debt problems. In other words, at least half of the referrals – whether or not you include things like the refusal of short term benefit allowances or crisis loans – were in one way or another related to recent changes in the benefits system, both to its reform and its (mal)administration.

That this has been happening is not in question. In fact it would be silly, as the government has indeed been doing, to deny it. But the extent and nature of the ‘hunger’ problem is in question. It would be remarkable if somebody somewhere didn’t find the claim that ‘Britain isn’t eating’ a little far-fetched. Indeed, it is only in questioning the orthodox view which, in my view, tends to exaggerate the problem that we might arrive at a sensible explanation about what is causing it. We only, after all, have half an answer.

First published in Huffington Post

People Using Foodbanks Are Hard-Up Not Hungry

Foodbanks have been back in the news over the past week, most notably with two rather vicious attacks on the people who use them. First came the Mail on Sunday with its investigative journalistic piece on how apparently easy it is to get your hands on a food parcel if you’re devious enough. The second, though not especially new (welfare minister Lord Freud had made the same point some months back), came from former minister Edwina Currie.

She argued that people are using foodbanks (much like some climb mountains) because they are there, and in growing numbers.

1 million people may be very hard up but they are not going hungry

The undercover piece may have been pretty mean-spirited – arguably it isn’t easy enough to get a food parcel because in most cases the gatekeepers at the Council, jobcentre, etc decide who does and doesn’t qualify – but it was the first real evidenced challenge (putting to one side the anti-poor prejudices of Tory commentators) to those such as the Trussell Trust making wild claims about a million or more people going hungry.

The rise in take-up of food parcels from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands is largely welfare-related

I see no reason to challenge the view of the government’s critics that it is welfare reforms in the form of a greater use of sanctions, the bedroom tax, the benefit cap, and fitness to work tests; alongside delays in payments, the abolition of the social fund in favour of less generous local authority-run emergency assistance schemes, and in all likelihood a deliberate attempt to shift the welfare burden onto the charity sector; that is responsible for the sudden and steep rise in food banks and food parcels.

But is there something else going on too?

You’d think ‘Egwina’ would steer clear of food-related controversies given her infamous run-in with the salmonella crisis that ended her political career. But in a way, I’m glad she did. For all their faults, there is a certain logic to the argument put forward by Currie, Freud and others that can’t be so easily dismissed.

There used to be a stigma about accepting charity – nobody wanted to be a ‘charity case’ – but given the riots of 2012 and what that said about the breakdown of some communities, and of the kinds of traditional working class values of which such an attitude was once a definitive part, would it be surprising if there were a greater readiness to accept charity today? As Currie herself argued, growing up in a working class family in Liverpool her mother always made sure to ‘put food on the table’ whatever the hardships she and the family otherwise endured. Similarly, as one rather controversial Labour-supporting social landlord has reminisced, his mother (unlike his tenants) would always be sure to pay her rent on time.

The instilling of these sorts of values may not have gone completely out of fashion, but – as I argued on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Stephen Nolan programme the night after he interviewed Currie (from 1:24:40) – to the extent that this is the case, maybe she has a point. Maybe, just maybe there is a greater readiness on the part of an increasing minority of people to accept, or even seek out, charity in the form of food parcels; rather than, as previous generations would have, fall back on their own resources or seek help from family and community?

Of course, it is hardly surprising that some people are struggling to get by when jobs are scarce, and the cost of living is going up. The economic crisis, not just the recent downturn, is all too real and unprecedented in its apparent resistance to the interventions of a clueless political class. But exaggerating the extent of the so-called ‘food poverty’ problem isn’t helping anybody. It only turns those struggling on the breadline (so to speak) into victims. Instead of trying to close down debate (like the foodbanks lobby have been doing following that Mail on Sunday article) or emoting all over the place – as the Daily Mirror did, apparently without outcry, with its use of a stock photo of a crying American child on its front page to illustrate its ‘shock report’ into foodbanks – we need to establish where the real problem lies. It is only by doing this that we can ultimately do anything about it.

First published in Huffington Post