In a radio phone-in programme last week, the Tory MP Jacob Rees–Mogg was asked to comment on the recent reports showing that the number of food banks in the UK has been rising sharply and they now number over 2,000[i]. He stated that ‘to have charitable support given people voluntarily to support their fellow citizens, I think is rather uplifting and shows what a good compassionate country we are.’[ii].
A number of Tory MPs, both during the present and the previous Coalition governments, have made rather similar points, indeed a few years ago food banks were held up by the then Prime Minister as a good example of the ‘Big Society’.
Some social scientists such as David Riches[iii] and Stephan Selke[iv] have criticized such growing dependence on food banks, arguing that their existence leads to both the normalization and commodification of poverty. Others such as the social geographers Cloke, May and Williams (2016) have taken a more sympathetic, albeit not uncritical view of food banks as existing in a space they term ‘in the mean time’, that is pending the major changes in government policy and the economy required to do away with them.
In some ways this latter viewpoint is not so very different from that of most food bank organisations which consider that they are there as a stop-gap and should not become a permanent feature of the social landscape.
But the major question is what can be done to change the current situation and who is going to do it. In my own research on food poverty over the last three years, I have interviewed a number of trustees of and donors to food banks (and other organizations seeking to alleviate food poverty). While many of them express some degree of outrage at the present state of affairs in ‘one of the world’s richest countries’ (a phrase I heard many times), few were advocating any kind of political activism. Indeed, some noted that such a course of action might risk the charitable status of the organisation or could result in division among the volunteers. Fewer still thought that there would be public support for raising taxes to enable, for example, higher benefit payments and so less dependence on food banks.
Perhaps food poverty is one of many instances in which the personal is political and who you are determines what you see and what, if anything, you do about it.
Much rests on whether people consider that poverty is inevitable, that the state cannot deal with all of its aspects or victims (a claim also made by Rees-Mogg in the same interview) and that it therefore behoves good citizens to do something about it. But such arguments may risk addressing merely the symptoms of food poverty, not its many causes.
One of the recent precipitating factors in the upsurge of food bank use is Universal Credit, the government’s new flagship programme to reform the benefit system and ‘make work pay’. The Libdems have already called it a ‘train wreck’ and at their recent party conference, at which its work and pensions spokesperson argued for it to be halted ‘for a major overhaul’.[v] Similarly many charities, housing associations and local authorities have expressed their concerns to the government in the strongest terms about what is happening in areas where Universal Credit has already been rolled out. These include not only lower benefits overall, but also at least six weeks wait and often much longer before these can be accessed. The consequences include greater personal debt and rent arrears leading to homelessness[vi]. Both the Trussell Trust[vii] and the Citizens Advice Bureau[viii] have warned that the situation for many is disastrous and leading to destitution. One Pembrokeshire food bank wrote as follows:
The 6+ week waiting period for a first payment can contribute to debt, mental health issues and rent arrears. The effects of these can last even after people receive their Universal Credit payments, as bills and debts pile up.
Small wonder then that the demand for food banks continues to increase.
During the last three years I have often asked myself why I am doing this research, and I am sure many others have too. We academics all like to think that our research will ‘make a difference’, that we will be able to show what is happening and why and thus what needs to be changed. Yet there is now so much data available about food poverty, its reasons and consequences, and so little change in policies, that researchers may well wonder who if anyone is listening, as the situation goes from bad to worse.