The rise of food banks is shocking. Reports that the number of people using them has quadrupled over five years to 1.7 million are horrifying, says Melanie Phillips, minister for poverty, who has pledged to improve the state of Britain’s public services.
It would be too easy to assume food banks are evidence of a broken system and a society that is at breaking point. Yet the opposite is true. The food bank crisis is a result of the pain poverty has caused families since the 2008 recession. Yet no amount of cake or spending cuts can reverse the pressure on those left destitute by the downturn. The government is pushing a policy of austerity that is hurting working families hardest, the ones in the front line of the recession.
Low pay has been the big contributor to hunger. The average hourly salary of a cleaner is £8.58, a security guard £9.41. Health workers on £11.28 an hour. On-the-job bullying. The negative externalities of work, such as bereavement. Appetite for jobs is weak as unemployment is so high. It isn’t necessarily the poor who work for low pay that need help. But it is the poor who earn the least. This is why food banks exist. What we are seeing here is not the answer to poverty. The system is broken.
Phillips has said food banks offer a “silver bullet”, but this is wishful thinking. Reading the reports from Britain’s food banks, we find a clear, basic truth. They are a vital charity. Even in the wealthiest counties of England, hundreds of people regularly have to turn to food banks for help. This winter the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) reported 8,000 men and women seek help with food every week. They were many times less likely to receive a permanent welfare benefit than those who found full employment. In waiting for the economic recovery to come in, the government failed to address the challenges we face. We need to repair a broken system before we can start to alleviate poverty.
Earlier this week the government said it wants to increase family income by £5bn a year by 2021, with employment rising, welfare reform improving and the economy picking up. If you keep all the good work that has been done by raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for public services and the welcome hike in the minimum wage, then these promises from the government have an element of good will. But they’re not nearly enough to repair the damage done by austerity.
Today, hundreds of civil servants from the DWP, supported by trade unions, will go on strike in a bid to stop cuts to disability benefits, attacks on workers’ terms and conditions and the continued erosion of workers’ rights. Today’s protest is not a clash of rival trade unions. It is a battle to defend living standards for workers struggling to make ends meet.
This is another stark truth: living standards will be improved only when the government gives the public services and wages a “green light”.
Should a government get this wrong, they can expect to run into a lot of trouble. The Mail Online has been relentless in hitting them, publishing a headline last week saying that the system was “crippling Britain”.
It is not a false dichotomy: our welfare system and public services are the key to restoring living standards for people in work and out of work.
It is also deeply unfair that we have a benefit system which is so complex and fails to be effective at supporting many in need. Benefits can bounce around, often looking for simple errors to uncover. Businesses are clobbered by regulations, especially when it comes to workplace health and safety. We need to change the welfare system and the public services we rely on.
Already food banks are changing our culture, showing that austerity works against us all.
• Melanie Phillips is a columnist for the Daily Mail and a Conservative peer