More ‘bold and courageous’ action needed to protect millions from biggest income shock in living memory

Our Director Niall Cooper calls for further action to ensure the outbreak doesn't sweep millions of people further into poverty

This builds on the coronavirus food alert which we issued with partner organisations at the start of the outbreak.

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The numbers swept into poverty in the past month are on a scale unseen since the Great Depression nearly a century ago. Further bold and courageous action from Government is needed to stem the tide of poverty and destitution over the coming weeks and months, which goes significantly beyond the measures already announced. There is an increasingly compelling case for a one-off cash payment to every household in the country, to ensure they have the means to buy food, pay rent and bills and tide them through the next few months and to provide the economic stimulus to kickstart the economy once shops and businesses, pubs and restaurants start to reopen in the coming months.

Whilst the measures taken to tackle the threat posed by the global Coronavirus pandemic are undoubtedly essential, the economic cost is disproportionately falling on the poorest and most vulnerable.  The numbers swept into poverty and destitution in the past month are of a scale not seen since the Great Depression nearly a century ago. Government measures to mitigate the impact have been impressive, but there is growing evidence that hundreds of thousands – and potentially millions – will slip through the net, and face increasing poverty and destitution.

The response at community level, by food banks and other community projects, has been heroic, with many seeing a doubling or trebling in the numbers turning to them for support. However, it is clear that charitable and voluntary action cannot avert the scale of crisis of poverty now affecting millions of people across the country.  In the light of this, further ‘bold and courageous’ Government action is required to match some of the radical measures being rolled out by nations in the grip of the crisis.

A global economic catastrophe: the biggest economic recession since the 1920s

Coronavirus is a global pandemic, with unprecedented global economic impacts. According to the International Labour Organisation (IL0), 81% of the global workforce of 3.3 billion people have had their workplace fully or partly closed.  According to ILO director Guy Ryder:

“Workers and businesses are facing catastrophe, in both developed and developing economies”.

Analysis undertaken by the Financial Times shows that the UK economy is heading for a recession that is forecast to be deeper than the 2009 financial crisis and one of the most severe since 1900:

Almost a fifth of small businesses "at risk of collapse within month"

Far from being just a ‘short-term’ close-down, there are very real long-term risks to the economy, with multiple studies showing that large numbers of businesses may not survive the lockdown.

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) have reported that companies across the country are suffering from a sharp and significant fall in domestic and overseas sales as lockdown measures brought many firms close to collapse, threatening widespread job losses.

A separate survey reported in the Guardian last week found that almost a fifth of UK small businesses are at risk of collapsing within the next month as they struggle to secure emergency cash meant to support them through the coronavirus lockdown.

In total, almost one million small businesses across Britain are feared to be at risk of collapsing within the next month as they struggle to secure emergency cash, despite the government’s efforts to cushion the economic blow and the Bank of England lowering interest rates to provide cheap financing.

The young, women and the low-paid hardest hit

The scale of ‘income shock’ that literally millions of people experienced virtually without warning in the space of just over a fortnight is difficult to comprehend. Exact figures are not yet clear, but at least 4-5 million workers have almost certainly suffered a major income shock, taking into account those who have lost their jobs (without the option of being put on furlough), the self-employed and small business owners.

Some workers have been hit harder than others, with young people, women and those in low-paid jobs hardest hit, as they are employed in larger numbers in the sectors affected by the shutdown, i.e. restaurants, shops, transport and leisure facilities.

According to research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), the lockdown will hit young workers the hardest. Employees aged under 25 were about two and a half times as likely to work in a sector that is now shut down as other employees.Low earners are seven times as likely as high earners to have worked in a sector that is now shut down, whilst women were about one third more likely to work in a sector that is now shut down than men.

Low-income households less able to weather income shocks

Lower-income households will also tend to find it harder to weather any income shocks that the crisis will bring, as a greater proportion of their spending goes towards essentials and bills that will be harder to cut if they experience income falls, according to separate analysis also by the IFS.

Many households are experiencing falls in their income as a result of the economic and health policy responses to the coronavirus crisis – often sharp falls. What they normally spend their money on will matter for how well they can weather this storm. If a household typically spends much of its budget on essential or inflexible items, it has less scope to adjust to a lower income by reducing spending without incurring relatively severe hardship. Hence it is relatively likely to run down savings, miss bill payments, go into rent arrears, or go (further) into debt.

In spite of Government measures, millions remain without cash

The UK Government measures to mitigate the impact of the lockdown on individuals and businesses, announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak over the past two weeks, have been impressive and universally welcomed. However, millions of people across Britain still risk falling through gaps in the coronavirus wage subsidy plan and benefits system.

As Revd Clare Downing, an Anglican priest in a low-income neighbourhood in West London, described this week:

“We’re seeing so many people adversely affected during this time of lockdown and the impact of the virus in our community. The estates in our area are densely populated and many flats are overcrowded; health conditions and life expectancy are already lower than average; child poverty, food poverty, isolation and mental health struggles are issues people already live with on a daily basis – add to all that the impact of lockdown, increased concerns about health, and bereavements from Covid-19 and you’ve got a pretty horrid situation on your hands. Yesterday, a member of our church family lost her mother, she lived on the same estate in a nearby block and her death has affected family members and neighbours. Today another woman hears that her housing benefit has been stopped (some query or other) so she’s trying to feed three children, with no income at present, keep them entertained in a small flat with no outdoor play space and now has to find an extra £140 a week to cover rent until they reinstate benefits.”

A million new claims for Universal Credit: But how many have been paid?

According to the Department for Work and Pensions, nearly a million people “successfully applied” for Universal Credit during the last fortnight in March. This is almost 10 times as in a normal two-week period, and has placed a huge strain on DWP resources.

However, it is important to note that “successfully applied” is not the same as “having received any cash support”, but rather means just that they have managed to register an application. This in itself was no mean feat, with helplines inundated, and at one point, a “virtual queue’ to apply online (the main method for accessing Universal Credit) of up to 145,000 people. What is unknown is how many failed to “successfully apply”, do not have the means to apply online, were defeated by the virtual queuing or the complexity of the information required from them, or are simply not aware that they might be eligible for Universal Credit or other benefits in the current situation.

As Tracey Herrington, project manager for Thrive Teesside, reported to me last week: 

“We are unable to stay in contact with some of our most vulnerable beneficiaries as they do not have phones or access to the internet. People have lost their jobs and an income to the household, some are unable to access Universal Credit so will be without one income which they have previously relied upon to ‘keep afloat’.”  

With Universal Credit’s much-criticised five-week wait for the first monthly payment still in place, and potentially long delays whilst claims are assessed, many of the one million new claimants face the prospect of waiting weeks to receive cash. Some may opt for ‘cash advances’, but as these are in the form of loans, others will be put off by the prospect of taking on more debts as a result. Those who do receive their first Universal Credit payment in the next few weeks will be in for a nasty shock, when – even with the recent £20 a week uplift – they realise that UK unemployment benefit levels are amongst the lowest in Europe.

Millions could fail to benefit from Government support packages

Meanwhile, there are significant concerns that in spite of the various Government support packages, up to four million self-employed workers will still get no support.

Highlighting sizeable gaps in the government plan to pay 80% of employees’ salaries and self-employed workers’ profits as the crisis mounts, the IFS warns that 2 million people who work for themselves would not be protected because they do not earn enough from self-employment to be eligible; earn more than a £50,000 threshold; or only started out working for themselves within the past year and therefore missing the threshold to prove their past income to receive wage subsidies. A further 2 million people who run their own company will also slip through gaps in the safety net, because they pay themselves much of their income in dividends, and less through a salary.

Workers who lose their job completely will not be helped by the schemes as more companies across Britain consider cutting jobs, while those who have to take unpaid leave to cover caring responsibilities, or who face a cut in their earnings but continue to work, could also be left worse off.

Ensuring no one is left to sink into poverty, debt and destitution

Given the unpredictability of the current situation, and the fact that many of the Government schemes have yet to be fully implemented, it is hard at this point in time to be precise as to what further Government action will stem the growing tide of poverty, debt and destitution.

In the UK, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has called for a package of measures to protect jobs, provide proper sick pay for all and protect the livelihoods of those who lose their jobs, by radically improving Universal Credit and a wider package of support for households and renters in particular.

A time to be bold – a time for courage

But even these measures may be too piecemeal to ensure that the ‘gaps’ are filled and no one goes without as a result of the crisis, not just in the immediate future, but from the longer-term effects which will undoubtedly continue to be felt for months and years to come.

Given the scale and urgency of the situation, other countries have introduced much more radical and far-reaching schemes: in the United States, the Federal Government’s $2 trillion economic rescue package included a ‘parachute payment’ of $1,200 to each US citizen. In Spain, the Government is working on plans to roll out a Universal Basic Income to assist all Spanish families.

In many areas of public life, policies previously thought inconceivable have overnight been introduced. In the light of the perfect storm engulfing millions of households across the UK, there is an increasingly compelling case for a one-off cash payment to every household in the country, to ensure that they have the means to buy food, pay the rent and bills and tide them through the next few weeks and to provide the economic stimulus to kickstart the economy once shops and businesses, pubs and restaurants start to reopen over the coming months.

As Chancellor Rishi Sunak has said, the support needed is:

“on a scale unimaginable only a few weeks ago. This is not a time for ideology and orthodoxy, this is a time to be bold – a time for courage.”

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What is the churches’ role in responding to Coronavirus? (part 1)

What is the gospel imperative for churches in this challenging time? Church Action on Poverty trustee Stef Benstead has been reflecting on what she's seen. In this first post, she thinks about Jesus' ministry.

Every time I see another group serving the local community, I feel sick. Not because the work isn’t good and important and vital, but because it is good and important and vital and it should have been us. It should have been the church.

What’s worse, I find myself being assured by church people that it’s okay that we’re not meeting practical needs because so-and-so secular group is doing it. As if God said “if you love as the pagans love, you’re doing great” or even “if you just focus on the soul and leave the body to the pagans, that’s great”. When God actually told us to love more than the pagans do, to do more to meet material and practical needs than the pagans do, to go further than we are asked to go. Literally, to walk the extra mile. When your country needs you, don’t just serve your part. Serve more. Serve double. But whatever else you do, don’t do nothing.

Consider this analogy. “Consider the insurance agent who says to a person standing in a burning house, “Good news! Your policy covers fire. We’ll build you a whole new house!’ Okay. That is good news. But the most pressing news the person inside the house needs – right now – is where the door to the outside is.” The author, I think, presented this analogy as an argument for saving someone’s soul (getting them out of the building) as a priority rather than improving their future lot on earth (building a new house). But I found myself reading it the other way around: what kind of person focuses on someone’s future spiritual lot (a new house in the life to come) when they are choking to death now? Who ignores that suffering? Smoke inhalation causes disorientation and clouds one’s vision. If we really want to save people, we need to get them out of their physical distress first. This applies as much to poverty and hunger as it does to smoke inhalation.

Jesus took the same approach. He never asked someone to verbalise their faith in him before helping them. He knew full well that many people came to him only for physical healing or miracles or food (John 6:2,26). Jesus healed ten lepers, but only one came back to thank him (Luke 17:12-19). That man is told that his faith healed him – yet Jesus still healed the other nine. Nor does Jesus even need to always be asked for help: he brought a young man back to life without being asked to do so (Luke 7:11-17) and picked out a single man for healing from amongst the sick and disabled at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-9). Other times Jesus tells those he has healed to go and sin no more, but there is no implication that Jesus used any foreknowledge of whether they would receive him in faith as a deciding factor in whether to heal or not.

At Church Action on Poverty, we know that some churches are struggling to keep services open because their volunteers are themselves vulnerable and need to self-isolate. But many others are finding creative ways to serve and keep people connected.

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Reflections on living in lockdown: shopping

Church Action on Poverty trustee Stef Benstead shares reflections on how the Coronavirus outbreak is affecting her life, as someone with disabilities who is used to being on a low income. In the first post of the series, she talks about shopping.

As someone with chronic illness, the lockdown imposed on society makes relatively little difference to me socially. My life was already a moderate version of what we now have. 

Practically, the major impact for me is shopping. I used to buy online and arrange delivery for when my assistant would be in to put shopping away. Now I can’t do that. Because I use a mobility scooter, I was able to access one of the early morning supermarket slots recently, but I’m not usually up at that time. By the end of the shopping I was feeling really quite ill, and I still had to queue through the checkout, get home and put everything away. I went back to bed for several hours and still feel slightly ill three days later.

The shopping itself was a bizarre feeling: all the most important products had large empty spaces behind them on the shelves, and by the time I found the paracetamol and the soap there were no paracetamol-only tablets (I got some with caffeine, which I didn’t notice until I got home) and the only soap was handwash and three luxury bars. I’ve read that the issue isn’t stockpiling, but that people are buying more from supermarkets rather than cafes, restaurants etc; all the people doing as we’re told and going shopping less often are therefore buying more with each shop; and the just-in-time, money-saving approach of the capitalist supply chain simply can’t cope with a slight change in demand.

But the solution isn’t to turn to delivery services. 30% of individuals used online grocery shopping in 2019 but it made up less than 10% of grocery sales. Yet some 12 million people, or 20% of the country, are disabled, and right now everyone with limited mobility, high susceptibility, high risk of complications, current coronavirus symptoms or sole responsibility for young children needs 100% of their grocery shopping to be online. Care workers, both social care, social work and healthcare should also be getting deliveries to reduce their role in transmission, given their high exposure. Yet the only people to whom the government guarantees access are the 1.5 million extremely vulnerable. That’s well over 10 million people being utterly failed. 

But getting delivery slots to disabled people isn’t enough. Healthy people need to eat and wash too! If disabled people need to go shopping at 8am to get paracetamol and soap, how are the healthy people who are also struggling to get delivery slots manage? We won’t control the spread of the virus if healthy people can’t wash, and there will be excessive suffering if the most basic drug, paracetamol, isn’t available. Our healthy population is about to discover why getting paracetamol on prescription, rather than only 32 tablets at a time, can make such a difference – because the last thing you want to do (and right now should do!) is to go out to the chemist to get more paracetamol when you have a raging temperature and debilitating pain.

The just-in-time supply chain doesn’t work. We urgently need much more rapid transport of food, hygiene and health products around the country for everyone. Not just the 1.5 million extremely vulnerable, not just the 12 million disabled, not just the over-70s, but everyone. Because everyone needs food and healthcare.

Stef Benstead’s book Second Class Citizens: The treatment of disabled people in austerity Britain is available from the Centre for Welfare Reform.

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How do you run a food bank in a pandemic? Here are 6 steps we’ve taken

Bernadette Askins, from our North East group, reports on what the Coronavirus outbreak has meant for the Key 2 Life Foodbank in South Tyneside

Things are changing very quickly from day to day and we have been struggling to keep up and adapt to this fast-moving scene.

Thankfully, our co-ordinator and 25 volunteers have risen to the occasion and everyone is working hard to make sure no-one is without food. We are expecting an increase in demand as people start to run out of money while waiting for the various benefits and grants to land.

An earlier photo of some volunteers at the Key 2 Life Foodbank

Need has more than doubled

Demand for food bags increased by 110% last week and we were anxious that we wouldn’t be able to meet demand. Food supplies from supermarkets are well down and of course we cannot appeal to the churches now. However, we do have an active Facebook page and an appeal was very successful – lots of food and money donations from the wider community.

We have had new funding to buy food from South Tyneside Council and several foundations have been in touch to invite applications for grants. Plus all the donations from the public which continue to be very generous (£1000 in past 2 weeks). So, no problems with money – just finding food to purchase!

At present, it is quite difficult to obtain food as supermarkets are rationing items but things seem to be easing a little. The cash and carrys were sold out of most stuff last weekend.  Hopefully when things calm down we will be able to buy food again. In the meantime, we have received food donations from local people, businesses which have had to close and small local shops.

Community has rallied round

Our older volunteers are now self-isolating but we have been able to recruit new volunteers (including our MP and a local councillor). Also volunteers from projects that have closed have joined us. Many of our volunteers live alone and working at Key 2 Life Foodbank is very important to them. They were quite distressed at the thought we might close.

Our foodbank manager, Jo, has health issues so is working from home and most of our trustees are self-isolating. However, we were delighted to be ‘loaned’ Pauline, who would normally be running the Methodist shop in the town centre, which has temporarily closed. Pauline is working three days a week at the Foodbank to make sure protocols are followed and managing the finances. A great example of cooperation and sharing of resources! It is a big relief because otherwise we had no senior person able to actually go to the foodbank to support the volunteers. 

6 practical ways we have adapted

These are some of the ways we have responded at Key 2 Life Foodbank to the Coronavirus:

  1. We introduced strict protocols to keep the volunteers safe.
  2. We are doing deliveries for people / families who have to isolate and who have no car, so they don’t have to use public transport. Key (one of our Churches Together charities) has loaned us their van and we have several volunteer drivers.
  3. From next week we will be distributing Family Food Packs with 5 days food. These are intended for children entitled to free school meals, but we will also distribute them to families who are in financial difficulties. Families can self-refer.
  4. We have upped our game on social media with lots of good stories and suggestions of ways the community can get involved.
  5. We have put a donate button on our Facebook page.
  6. We have provided foodbank vols with a letter explaining their role, just in case they are questioned on the way to work

South Tyneside Council has set up a Hub which began operating this week. People who have no money can phone and they will be referred to the Foodbank

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Food banks can’t meet this demand. We urgently need a new plan

I am a volunteer and I manage our independent foodbank in Parson Cross, in North East Sheffield. We have been operating for over nine years and in the past twelve months we have been providing food parcels for around 90 households a week.

by Charlotte Killeya, from the Parson Cross Initiative

Almost two weeks have passed since I tried to order our regular Foodbank ‘top-up’ delivery from a supermarket online (see my previous blog article.) It feels much longer ago than that. Since then, life has changed more dramatically than any of us could have imagined. Unless we are a key worker, we have been told to stay at home. We can only venture beyond our front door to shop for essentials, to exercise locally once a day and to support someone who is vulnerable. For the vast majority of parents, our children are no longer at school. We can no longer visit friends and family. Contact with the outside world is now reliant on screens and phones, if we have them.  

Two weeks ago, we did manage to get a delivery slot with the supermarket. Items were substituted and we received less of some products. At the time, the focus was on panic buying, hoarding and fights over toilet rolls. We tweeted things like “Stop Hoarding, Start Sharing” and asked people if they could help foodbanks by donating any extra products that they could find. People spent days driving round different supermarkets trying to get us extra items. However, as we stood back from it all, we knew that we were facing a crisis that we, and the country, were not prepared for.

Anyone who has ever run a foodbank, or volunteered at one, will have experienced the feeling at the end of a session when you look at the shelves and realise that the food cupboard is bare. It’s something that we have got used to seeing: those gaping holes on the shelves.

Fortunately, in the past we have always managed to fill them again using donations of money and food. At times we have been astounded how quickly and generously the local community and other local food projects have supported us. However, each week there has always been that nagging question of doubt: “Will this be the week that we will run out of food and have to close our foodbank doors?”  We have continually said that this model of food access and distribution for the most vulnerable in our society is not sustainable and is not a solution to the underlying issues about why people use foodbanks.

Speaking truth to power

We have shared our fears far and wide. We have always believed that campaigning against the injustice we see is just as important as giving food. Like many charities, we have campaigned about the introduction of Universal Credit because we have seen the impact that it has having on people in our community. We have shared stories about how parents are going without food to feed their children and how people are having to make the choice between buying food and paying the bills. We have introduced new ways of offering support:  a social cafe, a pop-up food stall where people could choose food items, a self-referral system – lots of different ways of putting dignity, choice and community at the heart of what we are trying to achieve. Sometimes it has felt like we were shouting in the wind because the message just didn’t seem to get across. There are debates, articles in newspapers but it doesn’t seem long before the focus shifts.
How many more conversations can we have? How many more times can we share these experiences only to feel like those in power are not listening?

At crisis point

And now, we have this crisis that we could not have predicted. It became quickly apparent for us that we would not cope this time.

Many of our volunteers and helpers are elderly, have underlying health conditions, have family members who are vulnerable, are at home caring for their children or are already self-isolating with symptoms.

We knew that donations would likely become problematic as people were no longer able to buy the amount of food we would need. All of this would be coupled with the fact that more and more people would be in need of support. With much soul-searching, we made the decision to work with a larger Trussell Trust food bank in Sheffield who have access to more donors, space and volunteers. This is a pattern that we are likely to see repeated across the UK as some local foodbanks close their doors.

The problem that we urgently face in this Coronavirus crisis is the need for organised access and distribution of food nationally.

Panic-buying has been blamed for empty supermarket shelves, and for a time I thought this was true myself, because it was hard to step back from the footage we saw; but with time for reflection, I’m afraid that this is not the whole story.

Our food distribution has been largely based upon a system of just-in-time stock control. Supermarkets do not have vast warehouses on site, but instead rely on deliveries that are timed to meet with drops in stock levels. The way supermarkets manage stock control is linked to consumer behaviour. Before this pandemic, many consumers shopped frequently for smaller amounts. Now, many people are opting to go less often and therefore are buying more items each visit.

This change in behaviour is having a big impact on the availability of food and therefore we are seeing supermarkets ‘ration’ the amount of food we can buy per visit.

Then, there is the issue of access to food. For years, foodbanks have supported people accessing food when they have not been able to do so through the market. This is the very definition of “food insecurity” in the UK: there never has been a shortage of food in the last decade, just the problem of people being able to access it fairly. For the many reasons that we know, people within our communities have not been able to buy the essentials they need and foodbanks have been there to fill in the gaps. Our own foodbank never claimed that we were able to feed a family for a week, our parcels were more of a ‘helping hand’ a way of helping to subsidise low incomes.
So, the idea that foodbanks and the rest of the charity sector will be able to somehow “Feed The Nation” at this time is an impossibility and a burden that we cannot and should not bear.
This week alone, almost half a million people have signed up to Universal Credit and will be waiting five weeks until their first payment. Foodbanks up and down the country will not be able to deal with this sudden and dramatic increase in numbers. We have spoken to people who only a few weeks ago had a job, ran their own business or were self-employed are now saying they will soon have to start making the choice between paying bills and buying food. These are, as we keep hearing, unprecedented times.

The answer...?

So, what’s the solution? Increasingly there are calls from organisations such as the Independent Food Aid Network, Sustain and Nourish for the government to implement a Universal Basic Income. If people have the security of more money in their pockets they will be able to better support themselves. There are also calls for a National Food Service with a more centralised approach pushing forward the argument that every adult and child has a right to food. Questions have also been raised about why we aren’t seeing central government coordination. Why isn’t there a Ministry of Food, after all there was during the World Wars? These ideas share the principle that a centralised, co-ordinated response needs to be achieved – and quickly. It should not have taken a pandemic for us to arrive at these conclusions; there have been warning signs.
Foodbanks have been saying for years that we were under enormous pressure. Whatever remedies are put in place by Government, both at a local and national level, they need to be clear, they need to be fair, they need to be universal and they need to be implemented quickly.

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A video message from Nick in Sheffield

"If we are not community, we are nothing"

Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, Church Action on Poverty will be posting messages and reflections from a number of our partners around the country.

Here, Nick Waterfield, from Parson Cross Initiative in Sheffield, looks ahead to the end of the outbreak, and what might happen next.

If you want to watch his video, above, perhaps grab a tea of a coffee first and spend a few moments reflecting with Nick. Alternatively, an abridged version of his message is below.

Let’s spend some time together, reflecting on the Coronavirus situation as it is at the moment, and what implications that might have for all of us who are concerned about issues around poverty and the situation in the UK and coming out on the other side. While we are in it, and all our concerns, prayers and worries are in the immediate, I think it is important still that we take time out both to care for ourselves and to already think about what happens on the other side.

We know there will be more sadness, there will be more hardship to come, but I think already there are signs of what we need to put in place for once we have come through this.

We’ve seen a deep affection and also a deep acknowledgement of the need for a good quality health service available for all at all times. We can’t pay for that by any means other than taxation or by social responsibility. It’s a shared resource.

This crisis has shown perhaps more than anything practical ever could do, the interdependentness of each other. If we are not community, we are nothing.

It has also shown that there has been an over-reliance on non-statutory and charity responses. It’s worried me, as somebody who has run a food bank for nine years here in Sheffield that at least in these initial phases that the government, locally and nationally, has seen food banks as a means of distributing food to more and more people. Food banks that were never set up even to feed the numbers we were feeding before the crisis are now being seen to feed even more, as if that response was somehow appropriate.

Reflect about what is it that we want to be as a society going forward. How will we value community, value each and every citizen? How will we ensure that people are not reliant on charity but that as a society we see that inter-connectedness and we learn to explore it in new ways?

How, as a society, may we take this terrible, terrible set of events across the world as an opportunity to reshape the world, to reshape our attitude to climate change, to hunger and to poverty? How may we see this as a God-given opportunity to actually reimagine the world, and out of the hardship, the misery, the sadness and heartbreak that we will inevitably, sadly, have to go through, how might we see this as an opportunity to build something better on its back?

New wine, new wineskins: theological reflection on ‘building back better’

Gathering on the Margins – 2 June

Reflecting together, 28 May: Whom are we serving in our services?

Gathering on the Margins – 2 June

Reflecting together, 28 May: Whom are we serving in our services?

You can’t eat the view

Stay at home, stay connected

A prayer of hope amidst Coronavirus, from our friend Revd Raj Bharath Patta:

New wine, new wineskins: theological reflection on ‘building back better’

Gathering on the Margins – 2 June

Reflecting together, 28 May: Whom are we serving in our services?

Gathering on the Margins – 2 June

Reflecting together, 28 May: Whom are we serving in our services?

You can’t eat the view

Humanity, dignity, poverty

Church Action on Poverty trustee Stef Benfield reflects on what scripture has to say about Christians campaigning for justice.

Should Christians work for structural change? There is a lot that could be said on this from a range of viewpoints. I’m going to use just one here: God’s law for Israel.

God gave the Israelites structures – laws – to prevent and eradicate poverty. His law specifically forbade exploitation and required generosity.

God forbade harsh treatment of workers. Pay was to be prompt, even daily, and adequate to the work done (Leviticus 25:35-43; Deuteronomy 24:14-15). Owners were not to hoover up to themselves all the available profit, but were to deliberately leave some available to the poor (Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22). Even animals were not to be treated harshly and worked for all they were worth, but to be looked after (Deuteronomy 25:4). The interest was not the money that could be made but the wellbeing of the workers.

If we followed God on this, there would be no job insecurity, no unpredictable hours, no overwork, no inadequacy of pay. Toxic jobs wouldn’t exist. There would be dignity in all work.

God required those with power to use it for good. The laws on gleaning mean that power is not to be used to grow wealthy but to support the poor. Laws on debt said that lending is not a means to more money, but a way to use your money to help others. If you could lend to someone who needed it, then do so – in the knowledge that debt is cancelled every seven years, essential items could not be taken as pledge, and usury is forbidden (Deuteronomy 15:7-11, 24:6,10-13). You were more likely to make a loss than a profit, and that was how God expected it to be.

For people who fell into poverty, God made structures to protect and provision them. This included the gleaning laws (access to food and work) and debt cancellation. It also included redemption of (extended) family property, based not on the worthiness of the poverty-stricken relative but their relation to one who could redeem (Leviticus 25:25-28). If a person had to sell themselves into servitude, it was for a fixed period of six years, with the option to buy one’s self out if the means became available. And in the seventh year, the person was not merely released from their job contract but restored to prosperity: the employer was to send the person away with gifts in accordance with not the contribution of the employee but the prosperity of the employer (Deuteronomy 15:12-15).

Finally, if all these remedies failed and a person had to sell their property outside of the family, then every 50th year was a year of Jubilee: all land went back to the original owners (Leviticus 25:28). It was a divine reset and redistribution that prevented both poverty and gross wealth.

Jubilee was a second chance for the very lowest, and a reminder to the richest that their prosperity is but a gift from God to use for others.

In these structures, God imbued humanity with dignity. The random chance of charity has little place here: gifts were made at the command of God, not the whim of the rich; and the primary mode of action was through the dignity of the law. Let us strive for the same dignity.

Join our book group

During March 2020, Church Action on Poverty staff and supporters will be reading Stef Benstead’s new book Second Class Citizens: The treatment of disabled people in austerity Britain. At the start of April we’ll discuss the book in a blog post here, and on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

If you’re interested, please get a copy of the book to read, and let us know you’ll be joining in!

Are we in the same boat? Some creative responses

Shopping online? You can raise money to loosen the grip of poverty

Listen up! New podcast to help end poverty

Church on the Margins in the time of coronavirus

Solidarity and sacrifice

The prophetic imagination

Where are the margins?

Who is my neighbour?

Gathering on the Margins – 5 May

Gathering on the Margins – 2 June

Reflecting together, 28 May: Whom are we serving in our services?

You can’t eat the view

“I rang our food bank supplier but there was little they could do”

Coronavirus: will food banks be able to meet demand for those who can't bulk buy?

Charlotte Killeya, Social Food Coordinator at Parson Cross Initiative in Sheffield, shares her reflections on coronavirus:

I started to read the headlines this weekend; it’s not easy reading at the moment due to the amount of information regarding the spread of Coronavirus. The stories about people stockpiling items in supermarkets and photographs of empty shelves concerned me. In addition, some supermarkets started to limit the number of certain items people could buy. My thoughts quickly turned to the food bank we run here in Sheffield and the people that we help.  How are we going to manage if shelves are beginning to empty of the very items that we always need? 

As well as relying on donations of food from the public, we also purchase additional items from supermarkets to ‘fill in the gaps’ on our shelves. Some supermarkets have always restricted the amount of some items that you can purchase online for delivery, but it’s usually more than the five that I saw on my computer screen this weekend. Concerned about this ‘rationing’, I telephoned the supermarket we usually use for deliveries. I asked if the reports were true and if so, was there any way around this, particularly as we are currently supporting around 90 households per week. Customer services understood our situation but told us that there was little that they could do if the stock was not available or was in short supply. They could not make an exception.

I did manage to place an online order from a couple of supermarkets, albeit some items I wanted were unavailable, the amount was restricted and we had to order more expensive alternatives. Thanks to social media posts we have had kind offers from people offering to donate to us. We are fortunate to have generous donors and supporters who respond in this way, but none of this deals with the fundamental issues at heart.

The spread of Coronavirus raises issues regarding food security, how we respond to crises in our society and the role that food banks have, and indeed should have.  

It is understandable that people are trying to prepare themselves should they become ill or isolated due to Coronavirus. Topping up their cupboards with extra tinned foods and making sure that the freezer is well stocked is not an irrational thing to do. It brings a sense of security and control – it gives us a ‘back-up’ if we need it. However, problems arise when stockpiling and panic buying takes hold because it has a direct impact on the most vulnerable now.

Again, understandably perhaps, it’s the cheaper versions of products that sell out first. Often, it’s the more expensive items that are left on the shelves, and this has an impact on people living on the lowest incomes. Unsurprisingly when items become scarce and demand is high, the cost of such products increases dramatically (we only need to look at the example of hand sanitiser to see how this happens.)

If you are on a low income you cannot afford to stockpile: there’s often little or no slack in your budget to stock up your cupboard for ‘just in case’ times.

Often, the people we support tell us that they manage food day-to-day or even meal-to-meal. Linked to this, it’s also difficult to get online orders if you have no internet or you have to reach the ‘minimum basket’ amount to get a supermarket to deliver: currently some of these minimum amounts vary from £25 to £40.

I was also struck by the types of food that some in the media have suggested that we ‘stockpile’ (or at least get a few items of each.) These foods won’t sustain you in the long term, but they can be easily stored away and used in an emergency. The lists are so similar to those we ask for at food banks – dried pasta, UHT milk, tinned tomatoes, baked beans, soup and so on. We give out these foods week on week. As a society we need to question this:  it’s not okay to expect people to live on these ‘emergency’ foods long term. The people we support are already surviving on this ‘crisis’ food.

We all hope that this virus does not cause the levels of suffering that many fear. We need to stay calm and try to think about those who are more vulnerable than themselves. Hopefully, if people have surplus food and toiletries they will share them out to others who need them. I believe many people will reach out and help others because we see them doing it in so many ways already, for example when they donate to our food bank or when they volunteer their time.

In light of all of this, we need to question the idea, and often the expectation, that charity should be the safety-net, the ‘back-up plan’, the solution to the problems and crises that we face as a society.

Food banks and charities like ourselves, have been saying this for years. Recent events highlight the flaws in using the charity sector to ensure food security. Food banks rely on public donations and volunteer time – if either of these things falls we will struggle to continue the service that we provide. For many people, food banks and the charity sector is their safety net, but unfortunately this net is already full of holes.

See this article in The Guardian for more background on the impact of the Coronavirus crisis on food banks.

Are we in the same boat? Some creative responses

Shopping online? You can raise money to loosen the grip of poverty

Listen up! New podcast to help end poverty

Church on the Margins in the time of coronavirus

Solidarity and sacrifice

The prophetic imagination

Where are the margins?

Who is my neighbour?

Gathering on the Margins – 5 May

Gathering on the Margins – 2 June

Reflecting together, 28 May: Whom are we serving in our services?

You can’t eat the view

Make like Moses

Hannah Brock-Womack, facilitator of our Church on the Margins network in Sheffield, talks to network member Siggy Parratt-Halbert.

This blog post is mainly about not giving up.

Siggy doesn’t give up easily, it seems to me. She works where she lives in the village of Woodhouse, to the east of Sheffield, for Unlock Urban. Woodhouse is a place where everyone knows everyone. They’re justifiably proud of their long industrial history, including having one of the pits where the Bevin boys were trained. It’s just down the road from the Orgreave where the biggest confrontation of the ‘84-’85 miners’ strike happened.

Unlock aims to share the Bible with people who don’t usually read that much. It has a really laid back and non-intrusive way of working, giving people the chance to have conversations about faith, knowing that no one is going to try and convert them at the end of the conversation!

Siggy started off her work for Unlock spending several months talking to people at coffee mornings. It felt like slow work. In fact, the first two years of that job didn’t go that well. She felt like things weren’t moving in the right direction. When asked if she wanted to keep at it for another two years, she almost said no. When she agreed to keep going, she decided that it had to be be by doing something that she enjoyed, so that she could keep going, even if it was tough. And one of the things she enjoys is drawing.


Inspirational women

I first met Siggy when she came to our Church on the Margins reflection day here in Sheffield a few months ago. On that day, she wowed us with the cartoons she’d drawn, which are of modern-day women and a Bible character that they have something in common with. These aren’t pious women who no one can now relate to, they’re inspirational women who changed the world with their vision, like Rosa Parks and her scriptural counterpart Hannah (from the book of Samuel), or Radclyffe Hall, a lesbian and author who was ‘out’ long before it was safe to be, who’s a bit like the Witch of Endor (also from Samuel), another powerful woman who nailed her colours to the mast and was at risk of death for doing it.

Siggy’s drawings on show in her church in Woodhouse

This project was the thing that kept Siggy going, and got connections all around the community flourishing. She drew them at the coffee mornings and other community events, starting off with those from the book History of Britain in 21 Women. Then everyone got involved, suggesting different women she should include. The last picture was of Jodie Whittaker, the first female Doctor Who (from Sheffield) – because where do you go from there?!

In the end she drew 51 pairs of women – including lots from the Bible that many who’d been going to church their whole lives hadn’t heard of. The people at the coffee morning are different from the people attend the church on a Sunday morning, so it was a way of getting the whole community (not just church-goers) to pull together around a shared, creative project. But it was also a way of making scripture more accessible, and bringing the tales of these inspirational women into the modern day. It makes the Bible more relevant, in a way, said Siggy, because, really, the lives we’re living haven’t changed, in a lot of ways.

Bringing the community together

Around the UK today it can feel like people are living more insular lives, needing to concentrate on their families to survive difficult times. It’s hard to make a living in Woodhouse too, so Siggy was making links with the local shops, letting them know they’re supported.  There have been several community projects that involved local shop workers, including giving out postcards of the four days of Christ’s Passion that Siggy had drawn. These offered lots of opportunities for non-churchgoers to ask questions about Easter that they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to ask before.  There were a lot of interesting conversations!

There’s also a homeless hostel in the village, which is quite a transient place to be. That means there are lots of young men passing through, with sometimes chaotic lives.  There’s a big disconnect between those who live in the village long-term and those who are there for a short time only at the hostel. The transient community often gets blamed for anything that goes wrong. Siggy wanted to encourage folk to reach out to each other but in reality, they were a bit too scared. One thing the project has done, though, is to encourage everyone who uses the church building to want to make contact with each other. That means two church communities that use the building, as well as the karate club, breastfeeding club, and the toddlers’ group and more.  She is confident that the men from the hostel will soon be included in this list. Baby steps!

As we’re both part of a Church Action on Poverty network, we talked about what being part of a church community means for people who are struggling to make ends meet. Siggy reckons that when people do go to churches that are working well, the thing they get out of it most is the family feel and the fellowship – you’re held. If anything goes wrong, or if you’ve got something to celebrate, there are people who are there for you. Knowing that other people have got your back is really valuable.

“It’s not about bums on seats, it’s about the kingdom”, Siggy said.

She hopes that churches can be seen as places where, when people have nothing, and don’t have the support mechanisms they need, they know that support is available. The faith side of things might come later.

Keep on going, even when it’s hard

The Bible Women cartoon project sounds like an incredible piece of work that really brought diverse people together. Right now it’s available to hire out, so you can bring it to your church if you’d like to!  Get in contact with Unlock.

When we met we talked a lot about perseverance, and what you need to keep going when you feel like you have a passion to do something but it’s not working out. The answer in the end turned out to be quite simply: do something that you enjoy and that makes you feel alive, so that even if it doesn’t have the impact you imagine, you are still being fed, and you are less likely to get despondent. It reminds me of the quote which is a bit of a cliché, but is nonetheless true:

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
(Howard Thurman, African-American civil rights leader)

Siggy’s other advice to those who are struggling to keep going? Be creative. Find something that gets people involved and makes your community ‘bite’ and come together. Use your gift (everyone has one!), or find that someone in your community who has the gift that you need.

And also…

“If it took Moses 40 years in the desert and he still didn’t see the fruits of the seeds that he sowed, who was I to complain?!”

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How do you run a food bank in a pandemic? Here are 6 steps we’ve taken

Talking global solidarity in Byker

Reporting poverty well: another step forward

Food banks can’t meet this demand. We urgently need a new plan

A video message from Nick in Sheffield

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How are you and your community responding to Coronavirus? Complete our survey and let us know

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Coronavirus food alert: Support our calls for Government action

Gateshead Poverty Truth Commission launch

Humanity, dignity, poverty

Church Action on Poverty’s approach to Coronavirus

Speaking Truth to Power in Gateshead

“I rang our food bank supplier but there was little they could do”

Food Power Toolkit

News release: Hundreds of community church leaders join call on UK Churches to speak truth to power

Speaking Truth to Power: North East event for Church Action on Poverty Sunday 2020

Make like Moses

News release: Smethwick gets its first Your Local Pantry, to help tackle food poverty

Gathering on the Margins – 2 June

Reflecting together, 28 May: Whom are we serving in our services?

You can’t eat the view