Gaps in the social safety net are a key reason why people are turning to food banks, according to the first in-depth study into the personal experiences of recipients of emergency food aid in the UK.
The findings of the jointly commissioned research published today by Oxfam, Child Poverty Action Group, Church of England and The Trussell Trust, also highlight some relatively simple fixes to the benefit system that could dramatically reduce the number of people who are left with little or no money to put food on the table.
The report, ‘Emergency Use Only’ interviewed 40 food bank users at seven Trussell Trust food banks, including six interviews in Scotland whose experiences help shed light on the factors that are driving food bank use in the UK. These interviews were backed up by additional data collected from 903 recipients at three Trussell Trust food banks and an analysis of the cases of 178 clients accessing an advice service at one food bank.
Key findings from the research showed:
- Food banks were predominantly a last-resort, short-term measure, prompted by an ‘acute income crisis’ – something which had happened to completely stop or dramatically reduce their income
- Income crisis could be caused by sudden loss of earnings, change in family circumstances or housing problems. However, for between half and two thirds of the users from whom additional data was collected, the immediate trigger for food bank use was linked to problems with benefits (including waiting for benefits to be paid, sanctions, problems with ESA*) or missing tax credits
- Many food bank users were also not made aware of the various crisis payments available in different circumstances, and even fewer were receiving them
- 19-28% of users for whom additional data was collected had recently had household benefits stopped or reduced because of a sanction* and 28-34% were waiting for a benefit claim which had not been decided*
- Many food bank users faced multiple challenges, including ill-health, relationship breakdown, mental health problems or substantial caring responsibilities. Many were unable to work or had recently lost their job. The frequency of bereavement among food bank users was also a striking feature of this research
Use of emergency food aid in the UK, particularly in the form of food banks, has dramatically increased over the last decade. Figures from The Trussell Trust show that throughout the UK, numbers receiving three days’ food from their food banks rose from 128,697 in 2011-12 to 913,138 in 2013-14. In Scotland, there was an increase from 5726 to 71,428 in 2013-14.
Most food banks users interviewed spoke of how severe personal financial crises were often the last straw that had brought them there, only turning to food banks as a last resort when other coping strategies had failed. Deciding to accept help from a food bank was frequently described as ‘embarrassing’ and ‘shameful’ but users reported that they would have been completely bereft without it. Considerable personal strength and dignity was also shown by participants, with many displaying great resilience in spite of their circumstances.
The research showed that the very real challenges people face are too often being compounded – rather than assisted – by their experience of the social security system with half to two thirds of food bank users who took part in the report ending up there due, at least in part, to problems with the benefits system*.
Robbie and Donna** and their three young children had to access a food bank in Central Scotland after a change in their circumstances meant their benefits were suspended for several weeks. During this period their only income was £47.60 a week from child benefit. They struggled to access information and advice, explaining that “it was too expensive for the two of us to go [to the advice shop] because it would be £7.60 or £10.50 on the bus…. That is too much money that we could have used for something else other than going to the advice shop.”
Robbie and Donna also described the strain they felt as a result of their reduced income:
“It is like climbing a ladder. Every time you seem to get one step higher then you get shunted down eight rungs.”
"I had post-natal depression with [my first baby]. And then I just sink back into it but just now is the worst I have ever been. Everything that is getting flung at us is making it even worse. It is making me think things I should not be thinking. My biggest fear is that I might want to go to the doctor and tell him how I feel. The fear is they are going to say take the children away from me because they think I'm losing it."
Keys findings and recommendations from the study have been presented to the All-Party Parliamentary Group Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty to inform the debate on emergency food aid.
A central recommendation from the report is to improve access to short-term benefit advances for people waiting for benefits by increasing awareness, simplifying the claim process and improving data collection to identify support needs. Further recommendations include:
- Reform sanctions policy and practice: increase access to hardship payments, clarify communications about sanctions, mitigate the impact whilst a sanction is being reconsidered and address issues for Housing Benefit
- Improve the ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) regime: ensure claimants are not left without income whilst challenging a decision, or because of missing medical certificates or missed appointments
- Sustain and improve access to emergency financial support through Local Welfare Assistance Schemes and the Scottish Welfare Fund
- Improve access to appropriate advice and support, particularly at Jobcentres
Rachael Orr, Head of Oxfam’s UK Poverty Programme, said:
“Food banks are both a lifeline for people at a time of crisis and a symptom of fundamental failure in our society. This report gives a voice to food bank users in the UK and highlights relatively simple policy changes that could significantly reduce food bank use. MPs and their party leaders can’t solve individuals’ personal problems but they can and should act to provide an adequate safety net for those at a time of crisis.”
While the research clearly shows that the recent increase in demand for food banks is largely a result of a lack of access to social security support, these findings also have implications for the Scottish Government and Scottish local authorities.
The research highlights the need to improve access to information and advice services, a call which is equally relevant in Scotland. Several of the families interviewed in Scotland highlighted how difficulty finding reliable and accessible advice locally had contributed to their financial crisis.
The experiences of those interviewed also suggested that more could be done locally to help prevent acute poverty and food bank use. Expensive public transport, a lack of support dealing with mental health problems and delays accessing the Scottish welfare fund were also highlighted were all cited as contributory factors to the families’ financial difficulties.
John Dickie, Director of CPAG in Scotland, said,
“The research shows that while food bank use is clearly being pushed up by UK Government policy, there is a role for the Scottish Government and local authorities to play in maximising family incomes, minimising the cost of living and ensuring that local services meet the needs of families struggling to make ends meet.”
*Between half and two-thirds of food bank users at the three food banks where additional data were collected reported a specific problem with benefits:
- 28-34% were waiting for a benefit claim which had not been decided
- 19-28% had been sanctioned
- 9-11% had their ESA stopped because they were found ‘fit for work’
Statistic is based more than 900 users across three Trussell Trust food banks and not nationally representative
** Case studies throughout the report come directly from in-depth interviews. Used with permission, personal details have been changed to protect participants’ anonymity.