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Jan 31 2013

Virtual Methodist: What if…?

Original post at http://virtualmethodist.blogspot.com/2013/01/what-if.html


I was just going to include this story with others in another linkdump on Saturday, but the more I've thought about it, the madder I have become...
After David Cameron announced yesterday at Prime Minister's question session in the House of Commons, a Downing Street source is reported to have said that food banks were to be welcomed as an example of "the big society"; so far, so predictable.
But then she is said to have added:
"Benefit levels are set at a level where people can afford to eat. If people have short-term shortages, where they feel they need a bit of extra food, then of course food banks are the right place for that. But benefits are not set at such a low level that people can't eat."
The last statement may be currently true, although with below inflation increases to benefits already proposed by the government for the next three years against increasing food, fuel and transport costs, together with announcements today about council tax increases disproportionately hitting poorer households, that may not be the case for long... But there is also a subtle campaign of stigmatisation of the poor going on at present, with many saying that benefits would be more than adequate if these workshy shirkers didn't spend their money on drink/cigarettes/Sky TV/flashy trainers/game-systems/smart-phones/spray tans/carry-outs (delete as applicable). There is work to be done helping people make appropriate spending choices... But in a world where conspicuous consumption is not just evident, but is actually encouraged by government as a means of kick-starting the economy, then why should it be one rule for the rich and another for the poor (and particularly for the children of the poor, who often put inordinate amounts of pressure on their parent/s because "everyone else has...") But that is a different issue entirely...
My main issue is with the idea that food banks are there "If people have short-term shortages"... I suppose that it was the "If" word that got me, given the current "If" campaign to eradicate world poverty... That is an achievable aim if the G8 have the creative imagination and courage to work together. And IF that is achievable, it should be even more achievable to make food poverty disappear in the UK... How can one country have at one and the same time an increasing problem with obesity AND a growing need for foodbanks?
I've written about food banks a couple of times before and have said that the first time I observed such programmes in the US I foolishly suggested that excellent though they were, we probably didn't need them in the UK because of our welfare state. But within 2 weeks of my return I realised my mistake in encountering 2 families who, for various reasons, could no longer put food on the table or money in their electric meter. That number has multiplied many times over since then, prompting us to set about establishing a local food bank, rather than continuing the link with Belfast Storehouse that we established in the wake of our return from the US that time. It seems to me that in the current climate it is not a matter of "if" people have short-term shortages, but "when"...
What would you do "if" you found yourself in a situation...
  • where you'd moved house the year before to something a good bit bigger and had just replaced your car, when suddenly you have been made unexpectedly redundant after working for the one company for over 20 years. You've signed on for the first time ever, but the benefits system has been glacially slow to kick in... your mortgage is overdue, and yes, you should have put something away for a rainy day, but you just never got round to it... 
  • where your husband simply disappears off the scene, leaving a mountain of debts, no money in the electric meter and no oil for the central heating, and refuses to pay appropriate maintenance, despite driving around in a top of the range car... 
  • where 2 government departments, and a crooked or incompetent lawyer (it remains to be seen which), manage between themselves to lose your passport and residency paperwork, which means that despite working here for over 14 years (paying full tax and national insurance), you are now unable to work or claim ANY benefits... indeed you are even told that you can no longer be seen by your GP even though you are pregnant (that is nonsense by the way)...
  • where you were managing OK on a minimum wage job until you had a short term but serious health issue, that meant you couldn't work for a week or two... then you took out a pay-day loan, but missed the first payment, leading to the astronomical interest rates from there on in throwing your carefully worked out budget completely out of kilter...
  • where you and your wife were on benefits through health issues and were just about coping until she was taken into care 20 miles away, bringing you the extra cost of visiting her, and removing her proportion of benefits from the household budget, which hasn't diminished significantly (and this will get worse with the bedroom tax)...
  • where you are a single mum on benefits who was just getting by until in one week, the car and the washing machine needed fixing at the same time (and I'm sure we've all had weeks like that)...
  • where you and your partner were intimidated out of a house by someone linked to paramilitaries, but were reluctant to report it to the police and ended up losing housing benefit and losing your deposit on the previous flat because you left without sufficient notice and the property had been damaged because of the intimidation.
People shouldn't have to be on emergency food aid from food banks for prolonged periods of time... and most food banks and their partners try to make sure that doesn't happen. Trussell Trust not only have efficient systems in place to avoid abuse of the system, but they and all the best food banks also endeavour to get behind the reason for repeated appeals for help from the same people, signposting clients to debt-counselling services, advice centres, counsellors, employability schemes etc. However, if people were paid a real living wage, and the benefit system was a lot less Byzantine, more responsive to real need, then, and only then, would there be no need of such things in the Big Society... 
But I predict that the need will increase rather than decrease in the coming years... Sadly.

Shalom

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Virtual Methodist

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