Christmas is coming. Traditionally it’s a time of giving, a time to think about handing something back to people less fortunate than ourselves. Sometimes that’s done out of genuine good intentions, sometimes out of an awkward sense of guilt at spending and receiving so much whilst families not so far away are struggling to keep the heating on or feed themselves.
The years spent under the coalition government have made the idea of charity ever more troubling, with more and more of the state’s support for its most vulnerable citizens being shifted off the national budget and onto the shoulders of over-stretched charitable organisations.
An ideological war, waged on the welfare state by the majority Conservative Party, has left millions of people hungry, cold and desperate. Cumulatively, the impact of the bedroom tax, the welfare cap, plummeting wages and soaring price inflation have created an unimaginable situation of destitution and hopelessness for individuals and families who could previously turn to state provided benefits, or council provided services to alleviate some of the stresses and practical impacts of poverty.
That’s the reality. There is a thick red line drawn directly from the Department of Work and Pensions to the door of every household that’s going without gifts, without food, warmth or hope this Christmas.
It’s a situation the government won’t acknowledge. Locally it’s a situation that Kent County Council is actively trying to hide. Council officers supressed the findings of their own report into benefit cuts when the findings came back as irrevocable proof of the folly and cruelty of the withdrawal of welfare support for Kent’s most vulnerable citizens.
The report’s findings were made public by the Kent Messenger, and paint a picture that will be familiar to anyone who’s been engaged with the coalition’s open, austerity-fuelled warfare on the unemployed, the sick and disabled. Food bank usage in Kent is up by nearly 4000% (an increase to 8000 families using their services from 200). Homelessness, including temporarily housed families, is up. Violent crime is up. The report’s own wording admits that this is ‘the most compelling evidence of the impact of welfare reforms on individuals and families’.
This is the reality, and it doesn’t fit neatly into the government’s ‘scroungers vs strivers’ rhetoric. More than half of the UK’s 13 million people living in poverty are in work. Wages have fallen so low in comparison to prices that a full time job is no guarantee of a warm meal in the evening. There are six unemployed people for every job vacancy in this country. Only 20% of unemployed people have been out of work for more than two years. The idea of feckless, lazy dole scum is a calculated myth; there are not enough jobs, the ones that are available don’t pay enough. Most unemployed people have lost their jobs during, and as a direct result of, the recession.
So why is it, that people who end up in poverty, working or otherwise, through no fault of their own, are being left to effectively beg for food? Why, when the government has already taken the poor’s economic safety net away, is it also stripping them of their dignity?
Food banks are necessary, and anyone involved in running them, or donating to them, is worthy of respect and gratitude. But the simple fact is that we shouldn’t need food banks. Not in a country where the richest 1% account for £450 billion in wealth and the top 10% of households are better off to the tune of 850% compared to the lowest earning 10%.
That is stark, devastating inequality and it should be the first priority of any decent, humane government to address it. Instead we have an administration that gleefully worsens inequality, inequality that in a very real sense is a killer, either through worsening health, shortened life expectancies or suicide.
By all means, please support your local food bank. Also, remember that at the moment, charities need support all year round to keep up with the extreme demands on their services. Remember also, that not all charities are uncomplicatedly good. Some very high profile UK charities are exploiters of workfare schemes. There’s also the attendant risk that charity can be subjective – the people holding a charity’s purse strings are free to give or not give as they see fit. This takes us back to the Victorian idea of the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’. Who is truly good enough to decide that?
The solution the welfare state offered was a universal, non-judgemental provision of a minimum standard of wealth and wellbeing. That is where it stood up compared to the fluctuating abilities of charities to support a whole nation’s poor and destitute. The question we have to ask is this: if the modern state can or will not look after its own, down to the very poorest citizen, then what is the purpose of the state? Where is the justification for it, and, if there is none, can we not imagine something better?
Words: Andrew Day
Pictures: Bridget Reader
Medway Food Bank website: http://medway.foodbank.org.uk/
Petition: Debate food poverty and hunger in Parliament: http://www.change.org/petitions/parliament-debate-uk-hunger-and-rise-in-foodbank-use-jackspetition
Expert blogging on budget recipes and food poverty by A Girl Called Jack: http://agirlcalledjack.com/