Today I read that food bank figures are the highest they’ve ever been, and I feel compelled to tell my story. I am one of those statistics.
I live less than four miles from the seat of government, in London’s wealthiest borough. Through an accident of fate, I’ve found myself living alongside some of the city’s most affluent residents at a time in my life when I am most depleted financially, emotionally and physically. I had a breakdown several years ago, which has led to severe depression with associated anxiety and a range of physical ailments. I am unable to work at present and I am dependent on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) through the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).
My designated food bank operates out of a nearby church and I feel a deep sense of shame and anxiety on the way there. I worry that someone I know locally will stop to chat and I will be exposed as broke and dependent on charity.
The food bank volunteers, however, are kind and solicitous. They introduce themselves, shake my hand, and invite me to sit in chairs thoughtfully grouped at conversational angles. I am not interrogated and nobody towers over me; I am grateful for the eye contact and empathy I receive in response to my tale of benefit delays, impoverishment and worries about the rent. I am offered tea, cake and cheerful conversation in the most welcoming tradition of the church. It feels as though the whole process has been carefully worked out in order to preserve my dignity and I am moved by this tenderness.
I am taken through a questionnaire to determine my needs and I am happy to be offered choices: between pasta and rice, or tea and coffee, or tinned fish and beans. I am also happy at the prospect of some toiletries as my limited budget means I often have to trade shampoo and sanitary towels off against more urgent food needs. It is a facsimile of a shopping experience but it helps.
At the beginning of this year, my ESA benefit was suspended due to a crucial form going missing in the system. I posted the form, on time and as requested, but it has gone astray. This is not the first time this has happened and it took nearly two years to restore me to the full ESA benefit the last time. The DWP is very quick to cut off payments and very slow to restore them, even when this is due to bureaucratic bungling rather than any attempt to illegally manipulate the system on my part.
The DWP will not call or write to me to tell me that I am in danger of losing my benefit. The ball will always be in my court and it will always be up to me to follow up, to keep meticulous records of every letter and conversation.
Every time I speak to the DWP, I have to carefully rehearse what I plan to say because I am almost guaranteed that the person I deal with will be brusque and will not offer any unsolicited information without being asked in exactly the right way. I have never, ever been asked how I am feeling, or whether my health is better or worse. I have never received any sort of acknowledgement of error or ineptitude by the department.
When I am ill and at my lowest ebb, it will still be up to me to find an advocate at my local Citizens Advice Bureau and articulate my case to someone who may be experienced in dealing with the bureaucracy but who is also cranky and over-stretched and working out of a crummy office with broken chairs and dodgy heating.
In my experience, the DWP is an impenetrable and Kafkaesque monolith. I have studied public management at postgraduate level, speak English as my first language and have worked in the voluntary sector for over two decades and I still find it almost impossible to navigate this system. Indeed, I am suspicious that the system has been deliberately set up to deter applicants as much as possible though obfuscation, bureaucratic delays and lack of clear information.
After every encounter with the DWP, whether over the phone, in writing or at the Job Centre, I am left feeling sullied and exhausted.
As I unpack my groceries, I am deeply grateful that there are good citizens out there who have a bit to spare. I am also deeply angry that it is up to the churches and charities to plug the gaps left by a welfare state that seems to be creaking under sustained ideological pressure in one of the world’s richest countries. I feel guilty that my poverty is nothing compared to the suffering of those in developing nations or walking the roads of hostile Europe seeking refuge from war. And I am thankful that I have enough to eat for a while longer and that I will live to fight another day.