In the UK today, people face recessionary cuts in jobs, wages and welfare, together with food system challenges which are leading to rising food prices. These factors combine in a pincer movement of impoverishment for many households.
The Child Poverty Action Group and other campaigners have demonstrated that the main cause of poverty is inadequate income, from worklessness, low wages, and the low level of benefits. Government figures show that in 2009–10, about 13 million people were in poverty (and nearly six million of them were in deep poverty). 62% of poor children are in households where one or more adults are in work. The UK’s income distribution is highly skewed, and worsening – leading to a growing gap between rich and poor, and a rise in the number of people who are ‘near-poor’, at risk of falling into poverty.
62% of poor children are in households where one or more adults are in work.
Out-of-work benefits have for some time been inadequate to meet the basic costs of living, and this has worsened over the last three years. Austerity cuts in other areas are also making things worse. The 2011 increase in VAT from 17.5% to 20% was regressive – it has cost the average household with two children about £450 per year. Child benefit has been frozen, costing the average household about another £400 over three years. Low–middle income households have lost their child tax credits, costing them another £545 a year. Low-income households working less than 24 hours a week have lost their working tax credit, which was worth about £3,800 a year. These are just a few examples. Families with children are the worst off, and it’s likely that the cuts are in general affecting women much more badly than men.
In 2009, expenditure on food took up 11.5% of average household income, or 16.1% for the lowest-earning fifth of households. From 1998 to 2009, the average income of low-income households rose by 22%, but food prices rose by 33%.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s ‘Minimum Income Standard’ research (MIS) assesses the cost of living by using a ‘budget standard’ methodology – a costed list of acceptable essentials. The costs are now higher for many items on this list which are key for poorer people (food, bus fares, council tax). In 2011, the prices on the MIS list had risen by 43%, compared with just 27% for the items on the ‘Consumer Price Index’ used by the government to uprate benefits.
Experiences of food poverty
The results of all these changes are clear. According to 2010 research funded by Defra, two in five people were finding it much harder to afford the variety of foods they wanted to buy – especially those on low incomes. One in five said the cost of food was a serious source of stress. Three in five were cutting back on other things to buy food – heating, travel, clothes, eating out, holidays. This was before the current reductions in welfare benefits and increase in VAT.
One in five said the cost of food was a serious source of stress.
Current responses to food poverty
The Government’s response to all this has so far been to individualise the problems and the solutions – or to ignore them. Response is increasingly left to local-level charitable food redistribution. Food banks, either independent or set up by charities like the Trussell Trust, distribute food which would otherwise go to landfill, or which concerned fellow citizens buy and donate, as short-term emergency parcels. The quantities are too small and too piecemeal to meet systematic need, and quality is variable, often poor. Sustaining the operation of such systems takes considerable work, often by volunteers.
Institutionalising the response in this way depoliticises the problem, and locates solutions at local levels, rather than tackling structural causes. It confirms the status of recipients as lower, needy and disempowered. The charitable systems struggle to sustain patchy funding, logistical and volunteer skills, and to avoid continually filling gaps left by the state as it retreats from responsibilities.
The inadequacy of this response was demonstrated in a statement made by Mary Creagh MP to the House of Commons in January 2012:
On Friday, I visited a food bank in Bradford and met people who use it. One woman had fled her violent husband […] eight months pregnant. Another had left her husband but discovered he had set up loans in their joint names for which she was still liable. There were women who had held down high-powered jobs […] but through a combination of bad decisions, bad luck and bad men, had fallen on hard times. Another described how she had found herself shouting at her children when they asked for a bit of jam on their bread, and how she visited relatives at teatime to ensure that her children were fed, while she herself went to bed hungry. Another described cooking tea for her children and eating their leftover food. One woman told me how, the first time she brought home a food parcel, she cried all night because she could not do something as basic as feed her
How can we do it better?
We need ‘hybrid’ initiatives, which engage members in policy analysis and advocacy as well as offering a practical, ground-level response. Members can offer voice, creative ideas and shared possibilities for action. Those working as volunteers or partners can be powerful advocates to raise structural issues and to challenge the state’s avoidance of responsibility and leadership.
There is also great potential for local government action, but it would need proper funding. Most of all, we need national government to take the issue seriously.
This post summarises points made in recent work by Professor Liz Dowler of the University of Warwick, a leading expert on food ethics and food poverty.
Church Action on Poverty’s ‘Food, Fuel Finance‘ programme aims to tackle the ‘Poverty Premium’ which is one of the causes of food poverty.