With emergency food provision at a record high, Laura Drysdale explores what has contributed to the struggle experienced by so many families – including those in employment.
When a person employed by a local council visits a food bank in need of support, there’s something going wrong. Lindsay Killick, the director of Real Aid children’s charity in East Yorkshire, makes the point as he speaks of the struggling families who have turned to the organisation since it opened its first food bank in 2009. “We are seeing more and more people come in and more and more people from very different backgrounds,” he says.
The charity was established in 2001, originally as an international aid organisation to help children and families in poverty overseas. Its attention turned closer to home when the county was badly hit by flooding in 2007.
The food bank followed that flood aid relief programme, in response to poverty “on the doorstep” – and its main purpose was to help low income, working families. “I have been running a food bank for nine years,” says Lindsay. “And I really never envisaged that I would have to do that. I honestly can’t see any end to it being used and it’s very upsetting.”
The financial crisis that led to the 2008 banking bailout and subsequent austerity measures, he believes, is at least in part to blame for people, particularly those on low incomes or zero-hours contracts, becoming insecure in their finances. The policy of austerity, in his view, “has contributed massively towards the inequality and suffering of the poorest in our society”.
“Whatever cuts have been made they have always affected the lower paid and the unemployed and zero-hours workers first,” says Dave Sample, the co-founder of Mission Trinity in Goole, which supports people in need.
The centre was set up in 2010 and has got “busier and busier” since then he says – adding that there are “fewer people that have been able to rely on a steady income” since the 2008 financial crash. “There’s a great difference between those doing well and those who don’t make ends meet at all. Those at the bottom are finding themselves really struggling.”
Food essentials given out by the centre are a drop in the ocean of a national picture of demand. The Trussell Trust, which runs a network of more than 420 food banks operating at in excess of 1,200 centres, gave a record 1.33 million three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis in the last financial year.
The charity made a call for benefit levels to be increased in line with inflation earlier this year, stating a failure for payments to keep pace with the cost of living essentials was driving the increase in food bank use overall.
According to the trust, ‘low income’ accounted for 28 per cent of referrals UK-wide in 2017-18, whilst 24 per cent were put down to benefit delays and a further 18 per cent to benefit changes. But the reasons why people use food banks are complex, a Government spokesperson says, suggesting it is “wrong” to link a rise to any one cause.
The charity’s analysis of data from electronic referrals suggests 14 per cent of households were earning an income of some form.
“Tens of billions of pounds have been taken out of our welfare system in recent years and this shows no signs of stopping,” wrote Garry Lemon, director of policy, external affairs and research at the trust in a recent blog for End Hunger UK. “We see the consequences of these policy decisions every day in our foodbanks up and down the UK.”
Usage is not the only rise experienced; the number of food bank locations has “increased hugely” from a “handful” in 2008 to a UK total number of at least 2009, including 774 independents, notes Sabine Goodwin, research and campaigns coordinator for the Independent Food Aid Network.
The financial crash resulted in austerity measures that hit the welfare state, she says. “Multiple benefit cuts and delays, the punitive sanction system and the rollout of Universal Credit have pushed many individuals and families across the UK into desperate poverty. The Independent Food Aid Network would like to see the end of the need for emergency food aid and believes that it is systemic change that will make that happen. The rebuilding of the welfare state and the payment of adequate wages that meet living costs are both key to addressing the food poverty crisis.”
It is hard to say for certain what impact the financial crash had on people’s daily lives, says Kevin Dobson, project manager at the Community Awareness Programme (CAP Care) in Wakefield, though he believes the hardships many of those attending the help scheme experienced in the years following it were “too much of a coincidence”. “It has to have had something to do with it. All those macro-financial pressures come to bear then they end up having an impact on people’s personal finances.”
Since 1997, the organisation has supported people in need in the city with help including assistance into housing, food and clothing. In 2004, its daily attendance was around 13 but by 2014 this had risen to a peak 87, up from 46 just a year earlier. Cuts under the austerity programme were likely a contributory factor he says, as well as a “general tightening of the economic situation across the country” following the financial crash.
“All that conspired to plummeting people into desperate problems that they weren’t in before,” he says.
Those who walk through CAP Care’s door are referred through other organisations and there’s usually a catalyst such as a job loss or relationship breakdown that spirals into other issues, explains Kevin. They can go from having “house, spouse, dog, job, car, everything in place and then within three to six months, finding themselves sleeping in the park”.
The financial crash contributed to those catalysts, he believes, with “stress and pressure on people’s personal finances” being “thrown into the pot”. Average attendance numbers at the support scheme hovered around 70 for several years following the surge, though there was a constant stream of new referrals, as others moved on. In 2018 though, that has risen to around 80 and “it feels like it’s happening again”, says Kevin.
Ashwin Kumar, chief economist at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a social change organisation with its head office in York, says even people in work are struggling to make ends meet following a long period of wage stagnation combined with rising prices. He says while things improved around 2014, after the Brexit referendum in 2016, the nation has seen a return to “high inflation and wages not keeping pace”. “For the past year or two we have seen prices going up as fast as wages so people haven’t found themselves better off.”
While the Government maintains work is “the best means of providing people with financial security”, adding that its welfare reforms are seeing people moving into employment faster and staying there longer, how things develop as Britain leaves the European Union remains to be seen.
Government defends approach
The Department for Work and Pensions says it is committed to supporting families.
A spokesman said: “Since 2010 over 3.3 million more people have moved into work, we’ve introduced the National Living Wage, doubled free childcare and helped workers keep more of the money they earn by cutting taxes for 31 million people by an average of £1,000. Meanwhile, one million people have been lifted out of absolute poverty, including 300,000 children.
“We’re committed to ensuring that families get the support they need. That’s why we’re spending £90 billion a year on working-age benefits, including for people on low incomes, and by 2022 we will be spending £28 billion more on welfare than we do now.”