December 10, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has pointed out that he believes that people going hungry in this country is worse than people going hungry in the developing world. Speaking at the launch of “Feeding Britain” – a report by the All-Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty – Welby urged politicians from all parties to confront the “simple but devastating fact that hunger stalks this country”. That this is happening at a time of rising national income demands a response that goes far beyond the limpid and ineffectual actions of politicians, voters and even the voluntary sector.
The report talks of the erosion of an effective ‘national minimum’ through which no one is allowed to fall, that has led to the existence of hunger and the rise of the food bank movement. It explains that for much of the post-war period wages and benefit levels increased in real terms so to give the poor a growing margin of income once the families had covered their three basic needs – food, housing and utilities. This margin used to allow families to avoid a financial crisis, but it exists no more as the price of these essentials has risen and real wages have fallen.
The second problem is related to the fact that ‘No authority sends anyone to prison for being hungry’ but does evict tenants for rent arrears and does order utility supplies to be cut off if not paid for. Therefore many families, finding it difficult to budget for the three main essentials of food, housing and energy, end up going without food. Food banks therefore reintroduce that buffer in their finances that many have lost. The report leaves no doubt that if ‘utility banks’ were set up to provide a set amount of free gas and electricity, there would be a spread of these utility banks instead of food banks, in order to reduce the pressure on their ability to provide food and housing.
But it’s not just a budgeting problem causing this need for food banks. There have been delays and errors in the processing and payment of benefits, in addition to the issuing of benefit sanctions by Jobcentre plus. There have been a sudden loss of earnings through reduced hours or unemployment, the absence during the summer of free school meals, an accumulation of debt, or even just a lost purse or wallet.
We also have the problem in this country that the poor are forced to pay MORE for basic utilities than the rich are. They normally have to pay for electricity through prepayment meters, more likely to have to pay to withdraw cash from their local cash machine, and are not allowed to take advantages of the cheapest mobile phone contracts. All this leaves them one bill away from needing to use a food bank.
In addition to all this, the traditional sources of support from family and community may have diminished, leaving some individuals more than isolated and exposed.
The report talks of structural reasons for the use of food banks:
1) The size of debt with which many families struggle – which may be undertaken at sometimes grotesque interest rates to meet an unexpected bill or replace a broken household appliance.
2) Many individuals and families who use food banks have a sizable proportion of their income go towards addictions to drugs, tobacco and gambling. If a family earns £21,000 a year and both parents smoke 20 cigarettes a day, that’s a quarter of their income gone. These addictions, remember, are being fed and defended by some very powerful lobbies. Try walking down a high street without passing a payday loan shop, pawnbroker, home credit retailer or bookmaker. Try to find a high street without alcohol being buy-able at rock bottom prices.
The report tries to understand how advanced Western economies have seen such a growing demand for food banks. It is the well-established changes in those economies that have seen food banks mushroom in the USA, Germany, France, Canada, and now the UK. Yet Britain has particular economic issues to contend with:
1) It has experienced inflation of 30.4% over the last 10 years – higher than the USA, France and Germany
2) It has experienced the highest food price inflation – 47% from 2003 to 2013 – again more than the other countries
3) It has experienced the highest fuel inflation – 153.6% from 2003 to 2013 – more than double Germany’s and almost triple France’s
4) It has experienced the highest housing inflation – 30.5% from 2003 to 2013 – more than France and almost triple Germany’s
5) Britain’s wages during that time have grown by 28% (note, less than inflation and far less than inflation for food, energy and housing).
6) Britain lost the highest proportion of high paying manufacturing jobs between 2003 and 2008 – with the number of manufacturing jobs declining as a share of all jobs by 2.3%
7) Britain has a history of very large numbers of very low paid employees – the OECD calculates that the bottom 20% of households in Britain gets about $9350 whilst the bottom 20% in France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands get at least $2-3000 more than that
All this has led to the following issues in terms of the trends in household income and expenditure patterns over the past decade:
1) The proportion of household income spent on utility bills grew from 3% in 2003 to 5% in 2011
2) The proportion of household income spent on food and non-alcoholic drinks grew from 16% in 2003 to 17% in 2011
3) The proportion of household income spent on housing grew from 17% in 2003 to 18% in 2011
4) Thus, the overall combined proportion of household incomes spent on food, housing and utilities increased from 36% in 2003 to 40% in 2011.
5) For poorer families – those in the bottom income decile – this change was even greater – from 31% in 2003 to 40% in 2012 – which was the largest increase across the ENTIRE income spectrum
6) Meanwhile, the median weekly disposable income fell for those same households from £180 in 2002/2003 to £177 in 2012/2013 – which means a growing share of a shrinking pie was absorbed by these essential items of expenditure.
So, what is the way forward. The report talks about the history of the call for a national minimum level through which no-one should fall. It remembers the campaign launched by Sidney and Beatrice Webb a century ago, through the Atlee Government’s post-1945 programme and MacMillan’s decision to ensure the poor on benefits would share in the country’s rising prosperity during his time in charge from 1956 to 1963. That Atlee was Labour and MacMillan a Conservative shows just how strong the consensus on the national minimum was.
But the differential impact of inflation and falling wages on the poor has meant that the protection of people from hunger that this society should be able to provide is no more.
In terms of how to achieve the goal of turning this around. The report details how the great powers in the land – the food industry, employer organisations, government and the voluntary sector needs to work together.
1) Work must be done to minimize demand for food banks – in particular from working families whose major budget items simply aren’t covered by their wage. The time between registering for benefits and being paid them needs to fall. This would ensure the only visitors to food banks are those who need intensive care and support.
2) A need for a “food bank plus” model to tackle the causes and symptoms of hunger – providing advice, skills and advocacy services in addition to the food and friendship they already provide, all under one roof. Many who work in food banks have an innate ability to reach and help individuals with longstanding problems – with food becoming a gateway to resolving deeper seated problems
3) We need to do better than throw away hundreds of thousands of tonnes of perfectly edible food that has been termed ‘surplus’. This ‘waste’ is destroyed at considerable cost and alone it could eliminate hunger in our society.
Hunger is a blight on our society. The time for action is now.