Come with me to a Trussell Trust foodbank for a couple of hours. Listen to people’s harrowing stories of their fight to make ends meet on the few pounds left over when the bills are paid, and how they’ve been going hungry to bridge the gap. Pick almost anywhere in the country: the Trussell Trust has a network of over 400 foodbanks and around 1,000 distribution centres.
You’ll be left in no doubt we need to work together as a nation, and urgently, to find solutions to the issues that result in so many low income families really struggling and you’ll want to ask the Chancellor to do everything he can to help.
Trussell Trust foodbanks provided at least three days’ emergency food for over 700,000 people in 2013. The demand has grown dramatically pointing at increasing numbers of people facing short term crisis. The recently published Defra report says this isn’t driven by us making more help available. Quite the opposite: it’s a measure of the growing need.
Emergent economic recovery has not meant any let-up in the pressure on foodbanks. That’s a basic reminder of the seriousness of the underlying situation. We have suffered the worst downward pressure on earnings since the 1920s. ESRC funded research tells us the number of people falling below the minimum living standards of the day has doubled since 1983. More children live impoverished and restricted lives now than in 1999. Almost 18million people cannot afford adequate housing conditions. We are a country of widening inequality where over 60% of children in poverty now live in working households. The UK turned the corner on previous recessions in three years on average. This time it has taken six years, which is twice as long.
This year’s Budget has to create some movement in a positive direction for the many millions of people for whom the past six years have been cumulatively, increasingly difficult.
Many people attending foodbanks have jobs. Too often those jobs are insecure, with uncertain hours. The “zero hours contract” world may help kick start growth, but it doesn’t usually help people out of poverty. Poor people need better base pay, more employment security, more full time rather than part time work.
People on low incomes need their buying power enhanced to address the serious erosions that they have experienced over the last six years. Food prices have risen by 30% in five years. Gas and electricity price hikes have been inflation busting and they have added to the misery of people who end up at a foodbank. We meet people in our foodbanks who are forced to be selective about what food they go home with because they can’t afford to turn the electricity on to cook it: the desperation is that bad for some.
So how might the benefits of economic recovery be shared?
Of course there’s a long shopping list and everybody will have their favourite idea of what would be best.
A few things are certain though. Trussell Trust foodbanks would see fewer people in crisis if the minimum wage was higher and if more employers adopted the Living Wage. They would hear fewer stories of desperation if the UK could somehow reverse the employment insecurity that has arisen from some of the changes in the labour market since 2008; if social tariffs for energy meant poor people in future didn’t have to pay over the odds; if the government could somehow find a fairer approach to the way they implement the withdrawal of the spare room subsidy from Housing Benefit.
Local Authorities have been given greater responsibility for supporting people in crisis and we have seen many creative approaches in 2013 as a result of this devolution. More resources in the hands of Local Authorities, well managed, would mean more local capacity to help people in crisis and better public services to support low earners: for example cheaper travel to work and more low cost housing.
And finally the government could consider restoring the erosion in the buying power of welfare support that is embodied in the 1% welfare uprating cap.
As I said, there is no shortage of ideas out there. But wherever you are on the political spectrum you have to agree with Rachel Johnson who said last week, after appearing in BBC1’s Famous, Rich and Hungry programme for Sport Relief: “The problem is so many people live like this.” That’s why we urgently need to find solutions.