Last week, when I heard about the latest rise in interest rates, coming in a year when 1.4 million people are thought to be due to reach the end of fixed-rate mortgages, I despaired. I know only too well what happens when “just about coping households” are squeezed, families further down the food chain hit huge problems, and many hit destitution.
The relentless onslaught of financial blows on so many households is frightening. Where are people expected to get the money for extra mortgage payments, rent, gas, electric and the essentials like shoes, clothes and food?
And so here we are in 2023 in the sixth richest country in the world where, as evidenced by the Trussell Trust’s report Hunger in the UK, one in seven people or their households – around 11.3m people in all – face hunger due to a lack of money. Many have to turn to food banks and handouts.
The charity’s report shows that we are failing some people at a staggering rate, with disproportionately high numbers of disabled people, carers, single parents and low-income families in work going without food. A quarter (26 per cent) of disabled people across the UK have faced hunger (compared with 10 per cent of people who are not disabled), and 23 per cent of unpaid carers face hunger (compared with 12 per cent of non-carers).
One of the biggest factors that leads a group to experiencing hunger is that their income simply does not cover the cost of the most essential items. People simply cannot afford to cover bills and eat.
The Trussell Trust’s vision is an end to the need for food banks in the UK. It’s not right that any of us should need to use a food bank to get by, and the trust knows that this can change. This report provides new evidence of the scale, profile and drivers of hunger and the use of charitable food support, including food banks in the Trussell Trust network. It tells us that the current design and delivery of the social security system is the most important driver of food bank need, but there are also other important factors that push people towards hunger. These include low-paid, insecure work and high-cost, insecure housing which lead to spiralling bills and not enough money coming in.
The way to end the need for food banks lies in making sure benefit payments at least cover the cost of buying food and covering bills. The Trussell Trust and its fellow anti-poverty charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation are calling for the government to create an “essentials guarantee”.
This would enshrine in law the amount needed to cover bills and food. The two anti-poverty organisations have calculated how much money people need to cover these essential costs. They find that currently a single person needs at least £120 a week to cover such costs – this is £35 a week more than the basic rate of Universal Credit. The level of this guarantee would be regularly, independently set and ensure that anyone needing support from Universal Credit would be able to afford the essentials.
If we are to end hunger and the need for food banks in this country, we must start by at least making sure everyone, even when they face setbacks, can afford to cover the cost of food and bills. An “essentials guarantee” would be a humane start to helping struggling families.
Food banks in the Trussell Trust network distributed almost three million emergency food parcels between 1 April 2022 to 31st March 2023; more than a million of these were for children. This is the most parcels the network has distributed in a financial year and represents a 37 per cent increase from 2021-22. Over the five years between 2017-18 and 2022-23 the number of parcels distributed by food banks in the Trussell Trust network more than doubled (rising by 120 per cent).
People coming to food banks have tried everything else they can to help themselves. They don’t have savings. Many have fallen into debt by trying to stay afloat. Nine in ten are in debt, with nearly two in three (65 per cent) managing three or more debts. They are much more likely to have relied on pawnbrokers, payday loan providers, or loan sharks than the general population. They’ve given up all excess costs, and the majority (86 per cent) are destitute, meaning that they are already going without two or more essentials. For example, 42 per cent don’t have internet in their home, and 16 per cent can’t access the internet at all.
And they are much more likely than the general public to have experienced adverse life events such as illness, bereavement or being evicted: two thirds of people referred to Trussell Trust food banks had experienced at least one of these in the previous 12 months, while one in five (21 per cent) experienced three or more.
Poor families are now also working families. That is one of the biggest social policy changes in the last decade. Families are going out to work and trying to be independent, but it’s not enough. Some 71 per cent of children living in poverty are in families where at least one adult is working. And that figure keeps rising.
We can no longer ignore such stark findings. It’s not right. I’m grateful to the Trussell Trust for this report and for all the work their network of food banks do. But if I could, I would make them redundant tomorrow by making them an unnecessary evil. We should not need them.