Many things in the world today seem outside of our control. There is the pain of the pandemic juddering on and on, deaths accumulating at a rate impossible to fully comprehend. There are the dire economic consequences we can hardly yet begin to project. There is the influence of the far right exploding into public view. And in case those current and imminent issues weren’t enough, thousands of species are threatened with extinction because world leaders refuse to take the coming climate apocalypse seriously.
The helplessness we feel in the face of these problems is why it’s so dispiriting to witness acts of pointless cruelty. There are some things that are within our control in this country, in an immediate and non-academic sense; feeding hungry children is one of them.
The images of the woefully inadequate food parcels sent out to needy children that circulated online and in the press recently were a nauseating sight. They were insulting – undermining the dignity and the basic well-being of those who received them. They did not contain enough food on even the minimal basis of calorie fulfilment, let alone providing a well-balanced and enjoyable meal. One mother spoke of her and her child’s sadness as she unpacked a parcel, realising that these meagre items were supposed to make a week’s worth of lunches.
One image showed a tin of beans, a loaf of bread and eight single cheese slices. Another showed a bell pepper cut in half, a single potato, a carrot stub and loose tuna delivered in a coin bag. Thanks to pressure from the footballer Marcus Rashford, Chartwells, the company hired by the government to deliver what it described as “hampers”, issued an apology (though Chartwells said “the picture in circulation that features the pepper” was not one of its parcels). The government later reinstated its system of giving food vouchers directly to parents.
The parents should have always been trusted with money or vouchers, so that they could make the appropriate choices for their children and take advantage of offers in local shops. But there are always those waiting to jump in and attack impoverished parents. They couldn’t be trusted with money, or even a voucher. They were poor, after all. Naturally, they would just spend it on booze, cigarettes and lotto tickets. (In fact, food vouchers can’t be used to purchase age-restricted items.)
I thought that feeding hungry children would be a rare bipartisan issue, but when I looked at the comments on a Daily Mail story about the food parcels, there were plenty of people falling over themselves to say that the recipients were ungrateful, since the food was free. The child should be delighted to eat beans, a dry carrot and old bread. What else do they expect?
Let’s indulge the fears of such commenters and imagine a parent who spends all their money on vodka and Benson & Hedges cigarettes. According to this cruel logic, the child of such a parent should have to eat inadequate scraps as punishment for their parent’s fecklessness. It doesn’t matter that this is a child with even less power over their circumstances than their parent. Because they are poor, they must be punished.
The food parcels scandal seems an especially sordid expression of an impulse some people in Britain have towards those who struggle financially and require help from the state: that they ought to experience no pleasure at all. It is not that the government can’t afford to provide the poor with solace or enjoyment, but that it would be actively wrong to do so. It’s as though any hint of pleasure would only further spoil those stupid enough to find themselves poor.
This hateful and nonsensical drive was disgusting enough when applied to people who receive benefits and spend some of it on alcohol, smoking or a television. But to extend its twisted logic so far that a child can’t eat anything more than scraps? That is a sign of a very sick society indeed.
There’s a man who asks for change sometimes outside my local supermarket. On the days I don’t have cash on me I ask if he would like something bought for him. Usually this is a meal deal or some chocolate, but recently he asked me to buy him some cigarettes. As I agreed, another woman passed us by and sharply tutted, shaking her head with disapproval at us both. But as I smoke myself, why should I feel any animosity towards him for doing so? Why shouldn’t he ask me for something extraneous that he doesn’t need for survival but which gives him some small relief, if I have the money to spare, as he correctly inferred that I do?
The pervasive pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps delusion grows thinner all the time, as the huge wealth disparity between bosses and low-rung workers grows, and property ownership becomes an ever more distant dream for those without inheritance. But still we are told to blame ourselves and our insistent need to drink a takeaway coffee once a week, or smoke a pack of cigarettes, or buy a television. The Tory London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey recently suggested that homeless families could simply save up £5,000 for a deposit in a buy-to-share scheme, epitomising the ridiculous idea that people without wealth simply haven’t had the bright idea of getting some yet.
Most people without money instinctively and correctly sense that without a dramatic unforeseen change in circumstance they are unlikely to level up social class through sheer perseverance alone. To say to them, “If you only eat a carrot and a potato for each meal instead of nicer and slightly more expensive things then you’ll save some more money,” is absurd. The money saved by eating into the vanishing pleasures of an impoverished life is always going to be negligible, marginal, nothing at all compared to what would actually need to happen for them to live with dignity.
This article appears in the 20 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Biden's Burden