“Hungrier than ever: Britain’s use of food banks triples”, read one national newspaper last year. Even within the headline itself, there was a dangerous conflation of cause and symptom that requires urgent clarification.
It is the sort of poverty that drives a family to rely on food banks that is the problem (which one might call “extreme poverty” without hyperbole). The use of food banks can provide us with no more than evidence for the extent of that problem.
It tells us that at least 900,000 people require the assistance of a food bank each year. That number – inevitably an underestimate – is far too high and it is the priority of any government to bring it down. There is nobody in the current government – nor in the last – outwardly content with the level of poverty in the UK.
However as an indicator of the “direction of travel” – whether things are getting better or worse for the poorest in our society – its evidential use is far more limited and it is this element of the “media narrative” that must be robustly challenged.
That narrative believes that food bank usage is indicative of a dramatic slide into extreme poverty for thousands of Britons. If that is correct, then we ought to conclude that back in 2005, when food bank use was a small fraction of what it is today, the UK had no problem with extreme poverty. That is evidently false and is, indeed, a very dangerous implication.
Moreover there is significant evidence that claims of a dramatic slide are a significant exaggeration. The OECD reports that a staggering 8.1% of Britons currently struggle to find enough money to put food on the table. Nevertheless, before the financial crisis that figure was even higher, at 9.8%. In 2007, the UK lagged behind the EU average on this measure – now it is comfortably ahead.
Similarly, the figures compiled by the Department for Work and Pensions show that 15% of working-age adults were in relative poverty in 2005, the same percentage as 2012.
By characterising food banks as solving an entirely new problem and blaming the current government accordingly, the media – and the Labour Party – is in danger of abdicating responsibility for Britain’s poorest.
If in 2005, before the financial crisis, Britain could allow almost 6 million Britons to creep into extreme poverty, then we must ensure that when good times come again the same thing is not allowed to happen.
The coming to power of a Conservative Prime Minister has helped, finally, to shine a spotlight on the previously forgotten. Back in 2005, there were no articles demanding government action: Britain was in a boom and it was all too easy for those reaping the benefits to forget those less fortunate than themselves.
The media is correct to highlight the burden facing Britain’s poorest and not to relieve that pressure until the problem is solved, but it won’t be solved by a change of government nor a few short years of prosperity.
Nathan Akehurst, in his article, writes that “many politicians… retreat into apparent hypocrisy when their narratives are challenged”. In this regard, the wilful blindness of the British public was aided and abetted by the comforting presumption that a Labour government was helping Britain’s poorest and did not require further pestering. The food bank issue is in danger of being swept into the fast-flowing river of Conservative nonchalance, callousness, and the “chumocracy”. We should not allow that to happen.
We, if nothing other than as citizens, have a moral responsibility to help the nation’s poorest. A robust debate on how best to achieve this should be welcomed. Nevertheless, the greatest betrayal of all would be if politicians and the public alike once again forgot that extreme poverty existed in this country.
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