In our Christmas appeal this year we mentioned Helen*, who we met at our food bank project in Tower Hamlets. Our advice helped Helen and her family get the financial support they needed. But we shouldn’t have met Helen in those circumstances. She shouldn’t have had to go to the food bank in the first place.
The presence of food banks in one of the richest countries in the world is shameful. The Government’s refrain is that people go to food banks for complex reasons. Research we began in 2014, and followed up in 2017, showed that food banks are mostly used as a last-resort prompted by ‘an acute income crisis’ – something that has happened to completely stop or dramatically reduce someone’s income. These income crises could be caused by a sudden loss of earnings, or a change of family circumstances, but for very many people the immediate trigger for food bank use is linked to problems with benefits. From long waits for benefits to be paid (as with the five week wait for universal credit which the Trussell Trust points to as a key problem), to problems with benefit administration and sanctions.
These problems are not inevitable. Food banks are not inevitable.
Let’s take three of the main problems at play here: problems with how benefits are delivered, problems with how benefits are designed, and problems with how much support people get from benefits. As we saw in Helen’s case, her benefits were not being delivered properly and good welfare rights advice released Helen and her family from the immediate financial crisis she was pulled into. But welfare rights advice has become very hard to come by. There is an urgent need for good advice in communities so that people can navigate the social security system and don’t need to turn to charity provision like food banks. And there is a need for reinvestment in crisis support like local welfare assistance schemes for when people face unexpected financial crunch points.
The design of universal credit, with its inbuilt 5-week wait, is causing unnecessary hardship. While in the coming years people will be able to continue some of their benefits for two weeks when they move onto universal credit, this does not apply to tax credits. We are also very concerned about the government’s proposals for how people will move onto universal credit from their existing benefits, as they could leave some very vulnerable people without an income. When the system is ready to take on new claimants and known problems have been addressed, the government should move people onto universal credit automatically so that people don’t have a gap in their income and risk facing destitution.
While many people clearly face problems getting support from the social security system when they need it, there is increasing evidence that that support is not enough to cover the cost of essentials. According to the Trussell Trust’s latest figures, the biggest single, and fastest growing, reason for a referral to a food bank is low income – people are coming because they can’t make ends meet. The benefit freeze, at a time when the cost of essentials is rising, is clearly causing a problem for families. Benefits should be unfrozen now so that support rises with the cost of living.
Our food bank project in Tower Hamlets, where we met Helen, will be coming to an end soon. What we have learnt there has helped us understand why people turn to food banks. We know what needs to happen so that food banks are no longer needed.
Our publically-funded services and support systems, such as the NHS and the fire service, are there for all of us when we need them. The same should be true of the social security system. A true safety net, and good advice so people can rely on that safety net, would ensure that people do not have to rely on charity provision like food banks.
It may be the season of good will, but good will is not something that people in a compassionate society should have to rely on to put food on the table at any time of year.
*Helen's name has been changed.
Menu for Change is a project we're part of in Scotland. As a result of poverty – not a shortage of food – too many people don’t have enough food in Scotland. A Menu for Change aims to tackle this by evolving the emergency response to make sure those facing an income crisis can afford to buy their own food.
End Hunger UK is a campaign we're part of to tackle the root causes of hunger.