Today, Human Rights Watch vividly illustrate the rise of foodbank use in the UK. In their first work on the right to food in a “rich democracy”, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report Nothing Left in the Cupboards says:
“The right to food is a fundamental human right contained in several international treaties to which the UK has long been committed. This right, however, remains unrealized for the increasing number of people, many of whom are families with children, living on the breadline.”
Their report comes on the heels of last autumn’s report by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Professor Phillip Alston, in which he was unequivocal:
“14 million people in the UK, one fifth of the population, live in poverty and 1.5 million are destitute. For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one… All this despite the fact that the UK is the world’s fifth largest economy… It thus seems patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty”.
Why is this happening?
There are structural policy changes that are driving this situation. Several welfare policies have been introduced to reduce the amount of government spending. The HRW report highlights three policies in particular that are harming people on low incomes:
- benefit caps
- a freeze in the rate at which benefits increase
- limiting child tax credits to the first two children
These policies are compounded by how benefits are delivered. The system is based on conditionality (you must qualify to receive this benefit) and sanctions (if you do not do this, your benefits will be stopped). As HRW note “these and other problems have made it difficult for claimants to navigate the system and receive needed funds.”
In our recent work in Fife, Scotland, we looked at the potential impact of a basic income on people’s financial wellbeing. Speaking to local people there, we heard the same story:
“it’s not called a poverty trap for nothing”
“the system’s out to screw us, keep us in our place”Fife residents
We heard about the reliance people are placing on foodbanks in Fife. Many local people saw it as a powerful symptom of benefits system that no longer provides security for people who need it, whether they are in work or out of it. Mirroring our findings, the HRW report specifically highlights the impact of the change to universal credit:
“food aid providers, academic researchers and non-governmental welfare advice providers have established clear links between the restructuring of the welfare system and a marked increase in food poverty among low income families who receive such support.”
None of this comes as a surprise to anyone working with, or analysing the impact of welfare policy on, people and families in communities up and down the country. As an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) report put it, we know that:
“benefit sanctions do little to enhance people’s motivation to prepare for, seek, or enter paid work. They routinely trigger profoundly negative personal, financial, health and behavioural outcomes and push some people away from collectivised welfare provisions.”
In Fife, the toll this took on people’s health was as the heart of the stories we heard. One person summed it up: “the system fatigues you in every way – physically, mentally, financially”.
In our work on basic income, we find a sense that the welfare state is moving in two directions at once: backwards in terms of the financial support it gives and forwards in how much it intervenes in your life.
How might we respond?
Don’t normalise foodbanks
First, we have to actively call this out to avoid the normalisation of foodbanks as part of the UK’s social infrastructure. It should never be ok that people are relying on food handouts to survive in any kind of modern society, and to accept it as a necessary ‘service’ or voluntary activity is to accept it as a fact of life in modern Britain.
We should never become that comfortable with the status quo, and shouldn’t ignore it just because we don’t encounter it in our everyday lives. Indeed, foodbanks are used as much by people in work as by people who aren’t.
Recognise the limits of local responses
Second, we need to acknowledge foodbanks can only ever be a sticking plaster to a wider set of social conditions and the extent to which people are able to meet their basic needs. As we saw in Fife, local responses to poverty have emerged such as foodbanks, hardship payments, clothes banks, etc. These are often led by the community, with support of entrepreneurial public workers.
Is this a positive sign? Of local innovation, of an active and compassionate community? Or is this a symptom of an acute system failure. That the benefits system and the social security system are fundamentally broken?We have to recognise that these efforts have their limits and can only go so far. The answer is not more foodbanks.
Find a new approach to social security
The answer is about new approaches to social security that eliminate their need altogether by lifting people out of poverty and destitution, addressing the negative social, economic, health and wellbeing impacts that flow from these experiences.
Our modelling in Scotland showed that a basic income has the potential not only to combat inequality, but to reduce poverty by a third and eliminate destitution altogether. This is the way to eliminate the need for foodbanks.
Today’s Human Rights Watch report adds fuel to the fire that austerity is a political choice not an economic necessity, and therefore hope remains that this situation can be reversed to benefit those in most need.