If you had asked me 20 years ago to write about food poverty in Britain, I would have laughed and said, “No! Food poverty only exists in Africa or India.” But now, there is so much poverty in Britain, the USA and other ‘rich’ countries.
This poverty is real. I am not talking about starvation, but about malnutrition which reduces the physical and mental potential of a child. Our politicians seem to be content with creating an underclass, earning low wages to maximise the profits of big companies.
And yet, for the economy of the UK to grow, it is in the interests of the commercial sector that everybody has enough money for their needs, and money to spend. We seem to be heading relentlessly back to the 18th and 19th Century, when the gap between rich and poor was even greater than now.
- Although the United Kingdom is the 7th richest country in the world, the gap between rich and poor is growing alarmingly. The richest 1% of the population have as much wealth as the bottom 54%.
- Food prices have increased by 43% in the last 8 years but average weekly earnings in real terms have decreased in many of those same 8 years.
- People on low incomes have had to resort to the cheapest food products. These foods are high in sugar, salt and fat causing the bizarre mixture of malnutrition and obesity.
- There are over 500,000 children in Britain living in families, unable to provide an adequate diet for themselves or their children.
- Cuts to the welfare budget are partly responsible. But so too are low, stagnant wages, zero hour contracts and the pressure on companies to increase profit by minimising payroll costs.
- Food banks are the last resort for those who live in poverty. They are not, as some have said, a life-style choice! Food banks are not just used by the unemployed, or those on benefits, but increasingly by those on low incomes.
Below the Breadline
You can read the full report here.
I have included some selected excerpts below:
Most of us have grown up with the assumption that when we fall on hard times, the social security safety net will kick in and prevent us from falling into destitution and hunger. We are deeply concerned that the principle of this crucial safety net is now under threat.
Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty have calculated that 20,247,042 meals were delivered to people in food poverty in 2013/14 by three of the main food aid providers (Trussell Trust, Fareshare and Food Cycle). This is a 54 percent increase on 2012/13, when the same providers distributed just over 13 million meals.
Food poverty, as with all poverty, affects women and men differently. Many women will go hungry in order to feed their children, whether they have a partner or not, and it is women who tend to provide the majority of childcare.
Lone parents, 89 percent of whom are women, are twice as likely to live in poverty as couple families.
“There is no evidence to support the claim that increased food aid provision is driving demand. All available evidence, both in the UK and internationally, points in the opposite direction. Put simply, there is more need and informal food aid providers are trying to help.” (DEFRA 2014)
Faith leaders have also spoken out strongly on the issue of food poverty and hunger. In February 2014, more than 43 Anglican Bishops and non-conformist church leaders signed an open letter calling for urgent action to ‘End Hunger Fast.’
“People who are using food banks are not scroungers who are cynically trying to work the system. They are drawn from the six million working poor in this country, people who are struggling to make ends meet in low-paid or bitty employment.” (Rev Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and patron of Cambridge City Foodbank)
Recent research has found that many people experiencing food poverty now buy cheaper, lower quality food and spend less on fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. However, this strategy has not helped lower-income households who could not trade down, as they were already buying the cheapest products. The lowest-income households (the bottom 10 percent) simply had to buy less food.
The National Minimum Wage is due to be increased in October 2014 to £6.50 an hour for people over 21, a rise of three percent. This is the first real cash rise for the national minimum wage since 2008. However, since previous increases were significantly below inflation, those on low wages have actually seen the real cash value of wages decrease since the start of the recession. The National Minimum Wage is still a long way from covering the cost of living, even when social security payments are taken into account.
This has meant that many more people who are in work have to rely on social security to top up those wages. In effect, the social security system is subsidising companies who pay their workers low wages.
The Living Wage is calculated as the minimum amount of money that someone needs to earn to live, and is calculated annually. It is currently at £7.65 an hour, and £8.80 in London. The Living Wage Commission estimates that 21 percent of the UK workforce is paid less than a Living Wage; that is, 5.8 million people. It has been estimated that by increasing the National Minimum Wage to a Living Wage some 4.8 million workers would see an extra £4bn in take home pay.
At the same time, the Exchequer would benefit from a reduction of £1.11bn in social security payments and a gain of £3.23bn in increased tax receipts and National Insurance contributions.
“A family in destitution, in a country as wealthy as this, is a disgrace that should not happen. I think the current welfare system does need reform and I don’t disagree on the principles with which the government is working, but it cannot be at the cost of casting people into destitution.” (Cardinal Vincent Nichols)
Food banks, and their army of volunteers, offer a vital lifeline to those in need. But they are a sign of fundamental failure and they should not become an ever-growing feature of life in twenty-first century Britain.
The government must first commit to really understanding and monitoring the true scale of this problem, then set out ambitious steps to tackle it. This will require a willingness to accept where mistakes in policy and practice are being made, and put in place measures to repair the social safety net.
It will also mean taking steps to ensure that people have decent, secure jobs so that they can earn their way out of poverty and to tackle the rising cost of living. This will mean visionary policy making; but if these issues are not addressed, many people are going to continue to struggle, living below the breadline.