Government welfare reforms are a major factor in increasing hunger over the past seven years, according to one of the UK’s most comprehensive studies into foodbank use yet.
The State of Hunger report, compiled by Heriot-Watt University for the Trussell Trust foodbank charity, surveys over 1,100 people referred to foodbanks, 306 referral agencies in 13 localities, 28 foodbank managers and uses new statistical modelling for the drivers of foodbank use.
It finds “clear and robust evidence” that “the extent and timing of five key benefit changes” – sanctions, the introduction of the new Universal Credit system, the bedroom tax, the level of benefits, and the disability benefit known as PIP (Personal Independent Payments), had “sizeable and significant effects” on foodbank use.
“Inadequacy, gaps and reductions” of the benefits system are identified as one of three simultaneous factors driving hunger in the UK. The other two reasons are “challenging life experiences and ill health” and “lack of informal support”.
It’s that last reason that is the least explored. The report describes it like this:
“The vast majority of people referred to foodbanks had either exhausted support from family or friends, had a resource-poor social network or could not access support due to social isolation.”
People in Britain report feeling lonelier than ever across age groups, which is often described as a “loneliness epidemic” because of the very real health impacts. Alongside this is the reduction of public spaces where people can commune locally for free: libraries, children’s services and youth clubs have been cut, plus pub closures and the decline of town centres.
“Other support mechanisms, so let’s say being able to go to a library where you can apply for your benefits because there’s a computer there, being able to go to a local advice drop-in, or a mental health support service – all those have seen cutbacks as well,” says the Trussell Trust’s policy and research manager Abby Jitendra.
“Partly it’s because councils are the main funders and they don’t have enough money, but also partly because the national government, austerity has stripped a lot of services back, and that often means that the voluntary crisis support tends to be very, very important to people because there’s nowhere else to turn.”
The loss of traditional state and private support structures can be very isolating, as well as the informal social changes impoverished communities can bring.
“If you are on a very low income, it’s often the case that your family’s also on a very low income, that your local community doesn’t have the resources to be able to support you because it might be deprived as well,” says Jitendra. “Having debts to your family can be really damaging to your relationships, and compound loneliness and isolation – if the financial resilience of your network is also very low, you really have nowhere else to turn [other than foodbanks].”
When reporting on foodbanks, I have not only come across people desperate for support, but also desperate for company. Some come in for a cup of tea when they don’t even need a food parcel. That’s partly why many foodbanks have a sort of front-room café set-up – they’re a last resort for community support, as well as for sustenance.
Feeling hungry is “extremely isolating”, and can fracture your networks further, says Jitendra. “Human interaction completely changes when you can’t afford to even sit down and have a cup of tea with your friend because you can’t afford tea, or to turn the kettle on”.
Grahame Lucas, who has managed Worcester’s foodbank for five years after helping to found it seven years ago, finds foodbanks now provide “an outlet, a place to go” for people who have no other place to turn to.
He provides “a rudimentary café function” so that visitors can “sit down with a cup of tea, chat to people, so there is a social aspect to it in terms of people’s dignity and their need to talk to people”.
Lucas finds the report’s identification of lack of local and informal networks a “really strong point”. He says critics of people using foodbanks often say to him “well, it was ok in my day, we used to survive” – but responds that the reason for that was “family networks”.
“People who come to us either don’t have those family linkages because of relationship breakdowns [and] ill health, but also in this day and age we are a much more transient population – family networks are no longer as local and as closely connected,” he says.
They are also in “much more long-term poverty” than before Worcester had a foodbank, he finds. “Things like the five-week waiting period [for your first Universal Credit payment] can be so pernicious and so demanding that they exceed the capabilities of families to be able to support each other… It puts immense stresses and demands on the family network.”
As the State of Hunger research shows, this is a key yet underexplored factor driving food poverty in this country. It shouldn’t be up to foodbanks to plug the gaps in our crumbling public realm, and in the communities that disintegrate with it.