“We have failed ….” Reflections on food banks and Universal Credit
This Saturday (20 October 2018) I’ll be leading worship at the start of the annual Pilgrimage organised by Sheffield Church Action on Poverty. As I prepare, it has reminded me of a previous event organised by the group, and the words I spoke then.
It was a conference held in Sheffield on 30 November 2014, and I spoke about how we as a society would have “failed” if food banks were still with us and were needed in five years’ time. That date is nearly on us, and presently there are no signs of the need for, and reliance upon food banks lessening, either by the people who use them, or by the state and welfare agencies (who now seem to have them written into their plans and strategies).
The ‘failure’ of food banks now seems both inevitable and clear, even before the deadline I spoke of has been reached. Now I am called into meetings and briefings about the roll-out of Universal Credit in my city of Sheffield; and am told by council staff and others that food banks are part of the infrastructure that will help my neighbours and fellow citizens cope with the new system of welfare. I am asked how might local government and other agencies help support food banks in order that they might better meet the likely increased demand for them following the roll-out of Universal Credit (other areas have seen increases of 52% in food bank use following the introduction of the new system).
Let’s be clear; the crisis facing food banks is not one of somehow better ensuring supply meets demand – the problem facing food banks is more fundamental. How do they escape from helping perpetuate a base injustice that is becoming enshrined by the dismantling of the post-war consensus around social security, and the return of pre-war models of the ‘deserving and undeserving poor relief’? Food banks with their ‘quasi systems’ of referrals, time limits and the like are simply reinforcing the hoop-jumping exercises already faced by people and families on low incomes who rely on the state and other agencies to help maintain a decent standard of life. Austerity is not just a set of political choices made by the current Conservative Government but is also a political culture and tone that has established itself in the aftermath of the global financial crash, and the crisis of neo-liberalism. Sadly it is one that despite our talk of solidarity, despite our best intentions, food banks have not overturned, and in fact may have (without ever intending to) helped to perpetuate.
Where does this leave us? I don’t know but here’s some thoughts. I am grateful for those around me who are helping to unpick and challenge what the next steps might be. Politically we need to find new models of community based support that meet the needs of those struggling on low incomes (and temporarily no income) but that do so with dignity, compassion and inclusion, at the same time we need to find ways of going upstream to the heart of the problem. Some politicians are now too happy to avoid the issue of poverty and food bank use by arguing that the issue is ‘complex’ – yes it is, and therefore it needs sound public policy responses not simplistic solutions. Poverty comes in many forms and with many complexities:
- Poverty and poor mental health
- Poverty and low wages
- Poverty and disability
- Poverty and isolation
- Poverty and debt
- Poverty and addiction
- Poverty and deskilling
- Poverty and ill health
This list of course could go on, which is of course why food banks aren’t the answer – and neither is any simplistic approach like “the best route out of poverty is through work” – but there are people not able to work, or not able to get secure work, or work with a level of decent wages (and I don’t simply mean paying the ‘national minimum wage’). Sadly their are plenty of people working who are still experiencing hardship, and yes even visits to food banks!
But for many of us the problems are not just political but also theological – so much of the food bank response has been through churches and other faith-based organisations, we must also challenge ourselves about what we are doing. Yes we are responding to a call (as phrased within my own Christian tradition) to ‘feed the hungry’ and provide for those in need; but let’s examine our deeper motivations too. Are we sometimes only too glad to have found a new ‘centre stage’ for our civic presence? Are we sometimes guilty of stepping into ‘saviour’ mode?
Many of us involved in food banks know that we cannot simply continue as we are – we are at something of a crossroads, the next few years will likely see a number of things, and these will set the pattern for our future.
- We are likely to see an increase in the ‘corporatisation’ of some food banks. Franchised food banks, securing local (and possibly even central) government funding, national deals with supermarkets (and other companies) and increased pressure for the need for ‘robust’ referral systems to ensure public accountability.
- The closure of many smaller, ‘independent’ food banks as they struggle to cope with the increased needs and demands upon them.
- The emergence of new models (which will no doubt throw up their own problems and questions) of community support.
I’ll finish this blog reflection with the words I have chosen to start the pilgrimage this Saturday with – they seem fitting for the times we are in:
Today we set off on a journey together;
a journey of discovery,
a journey of understanding,
a journey of emotions,
a journey of prayer.
One step at a time,
we journey onwards with God.
This is pilgrimage.