Saturday, 13 December 2014

Feeding Britain: blaming the victim?

It is quite difficult to characterise what the Food Poverty report, Feeding Britain, is. I can best say only that it is not what I hoped it would be. I hoped for a reasoned account of why so many people are forced to go to food banks, why that number has risen so much during the years of coalition government, and what can be done to eliminate the need. Some of those elements are there but poorly argued, badly evidenced and insufficiently marshalled into coherence. Most of all I expect some passion, but there appears to be none in this document. It starts with great ambition “We believe it is time to look again at the state of our country and to review the fundamental values that led to the creation of our welfare state. We propose in Feeding Britain a strategy for renewing the welfare state so it can better reflect and encourage the relationships which contribute to the well-being of our citizens, including the poorest. We think such a rationale is needed at a time when, sadly, we appear to be drifting towards more and more atomisation and less and less sharing of common values.” And then it delivers a series of bureaucratic tweaks to the current system while accepting all of the major forces that conspire to produce the poverty they hope to eliminate. In some ways, they have my sympathy. Many of their recommendations are for change in the way the DWP does things. Good luck to them if they are able to change Iain Duncan Smith's hardness of heart.

When such an eminent bunch of people gather to report, I expect something that goes behind the fa├žade and looks at the hidden structural issues. The phrase “food poverty” itself is the place to start. There is no such thing as “food poverty” or “energy poverty”, there is only poverty. People do not have little pots for each of their living requirements, one of which can empty without affecting the others. They have only one, inadequate, pot. So an investigation into food banks is really an investigation into poverty. Poverty in the UK today has two main causes, neoliberal economics, and the actions of the coalition government, specifically the Department for Work and Pensions. When even the OECD tells you that increasing inequality is the wrong way to go, it is time to sit up and listen. But this report largely ignores that whole issue.

What troubles me most of all is that, despite many fine words, the authors continuously fall into the discourse of individual shame, and they do so in a way that would make a Daily Mail journalist proud. In their initial survey they suddenly, on page 10, introduce the topic of addiction. They mention debt as a factor, then say “The other force at work is the addictions that many individuals and families have” and continue “A considerable number of our poorest families and individuals find themselves trapped, thereby, in a vicious circle of addiction fed by debt”.  There are no statistics to back up this audacious statement, no suggestion of exactly what proportion of food bank users are there because of addiction. But the suggestion is now planted in the reader's mind that it's all their own fault.

They do it again on p14 “there is a second group of our fellow citizens who rely on their local food assistance provider who it is important to distinguish for it has helped shape our recommendations. This second group consists largely of individuals with often highly complex needs that extend beyond their immediate hunger, such as mental illness, homelessness or addiction problems, and who require long-term assistance and support if they are not sometimes to be hungry. Many were reliant on food assistance before the most recent recession and many are likely to remain so in the years ahead.”  There is again no hint of what proportion of food bank users are in this situation, and no attempt to match this statement with the massive rise in food bank use that has occurred over the last four years (e.g. Huffington Post). People in this situation need intensive and personally directed help, but provision of this much needed help will not solve the problems of the vast majority of food bank users who are there for only one reason: neither work nor welfare provides enough money for them to survive..

Then, p29, they turn their attention to troubled families. They applaud the work schools do “We have had a great deal of evidence showing how imaginatively schools try to protect these vulnerable children from the consequences of the chaos that reigns at home. We applaud these efforts, would wish them to continue, and indeed be expanded to cover all children who arrive at school hungry. The aim should be for this response to be extended.” A couple of paragraphs later they admit that they have no idea how many people who go to food banks fall into this category.

They save their finest example to near the end of the report, p39. They discuss the impact of the sanctions regime, and start by saying “Some sanctioned claimants do not kick up a fuss because they may, for example, have been working on the side whilst claiming and see the sanction as part of the business plan of fraudulently claiming benefit.” They then go on to discuss the effect of sanctions on the (mostly) innocent victims. No evidence is cited to back up their imputation of fraud - absolutely none. But that impression has been planted in the reader's mind. The uninformed will far too easily be led to think that the sanctions regime is doing a great job punishing fraud and if a few unfortunate innocents fall victim, that is a price worth paying. Forget the simple, simple statistic, the DWP's own estimate that fraud and error take up a mere 0.7% of their budget. Forget the mountain of evidence of the random, arbitrary and vindictive nature of the entire sanctions regime. If one of my level one social science students made such a sweeping claim in their essay, backed up by absolutely no evidence, I would be round at their house strangling them with their own guts. That a group of authoritative people can do so in a public document fills me with fury.

There are some glimmers of hope, such as the recognition (p28) that mobile phones and internet access are more than fashion accessories. And there are many good recommendations, but they all seem to be piecemeal, unrelated pieces of a jigsaw with no picture. And for all those glimmers, the report is framed in a way that constantly diverts attention from the problem of poverty on to the failings of the poor. I had hoped for better.

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