Thursday, 4 December 2014

'Emergency Use Only?' On food banks, shame, and broken systems

I’m angry. I’m also tired, frustrated, and have moments of despair, but most especially, I’m angry.

Yesterday, I spent a substantial part of my day in a cold, barely-furnished flat, with a woman who’s facing eviction in a week’s time. On Tuesday, we’d given her some food, because she had nothing to eat at all. On Wednesday morning when I visited, it was pretty clear that she had no money to pay for enough electricity to heat the food in the cans we’d given her. And then I spent about an hour on mobile phone (she didn’t have any credit, as you can imagine), trying to navigate the complex and over-stretched systems of Birmingham City Council, attempting to find out whether there might just be a new flat available for her in a week’s time, or whether she’ll be kicked out onto the streets, two weeks before Christmas. The extra irony is that Birmingham City Council are knocking down her block of flats next year, so it’s pretty much guaranteed that her flat will remain empty when she leaves.

On 19th November, a report was published, entitled ‘Emergency Use Only: Understanding and reducing the use of food banksin the UK’. It was quickly dismissed by the government as inconclusive, selective and not proving anything, with the DWP insisting “we have a strong safety net in place”. The DWP minister who was meant to be attending the report’s launch and responding in person, inexplicably pulled out at the last minute, leading one Church of England bishop to politely suggest – as perhaps only a Church of England bishop can – that “they possibly need to read the report”.

In case you missed it, the report – jointly commissioned by Oxfam, Child Poverty Action Group, the Church of England and the Trussell Trust – examined why people are turning to food banks, how food bank use fits with their wider coping strategies, and what might be done to reduce the need that leads to food bank use. Its key findings included:
  • that people turned to food banks as a last resort, and that they found the decision difficult, ‘unnatural’, ‘embarrassing’ and ‘shameful’
  • that most food bank users were facing an immediate, acute financial crisis – either a complete loss of income or a very significant reduction in their income, leaving them with little or no money to put food on the table
  • that those acute crises could be prompted by a sudden loss of earnings (e.g. losing a job, or loss of work through ill health), a change in family circumstances (e.g. bereavement), or homelessness – but for between half and two-thirds of people, it was linked to problems with the benefits system (e.g. waiting for payments, sanctions, or reductions in disability benefits)
  • that sources of ‘emergency support’ were insufficient, or so poorly advertised that people were not aware of what was available

In addition, the report found that food bank use is made more likely when individuals or families lived with specific vulnerabilities, including:
  • living in a local area where access to jobs, shops and services is limited
  • the impact of physical and mental illness on an individual or within the wider household (including caring responsibilities)
  • difficulty obtaining or proving educational qualifications or skills
  • problems with housing
  • isolation or lack of family support
  • large debt repayments

The report made recommendations, within its tightly-constrained remit, around improving access to emergency financial support, improving the effectiveness of communication and support within the systems (e.g. Jobcentre Plus), and mitigating the impact of gaps in payments around challenging and reconsidering decisions.

But there are glaring issues the report writers were not able to say in so many words, for fear of the kind of oppressive government retaliation against vital anti-poverty charities that, once upon a time, we might have imagined was the sole preserve of dictatorial regimes.

Like the fact that the systems that are supposed to ‘support’ people on the breadline are so complex, inefficient and unfriendly that either those in government have deliberately intended them that way, or those in government are so incompetent they are unable to address their fatal flaws. Take the ‘Universal Jobmatch’ website, for example – a place that all those on Jobseeker’s Allowance are expected to visit several times a week. If the frequency with which it crashes on me and my colleagues at our local Open Door drop-in is anything to go by, or the endless circular loops it gets into, preventing a user from registering, or having their latest activity acknowledged by the system – then the system is well and truly broken, and it’s certainly not the fault of the ‘users’. The idea that all benefits are going to be computerised through Universal Credit is a vision that should strike terror into everyone who has ever used a government website. And I can’t help wondering if terror is exactly what is intended. After all, it saves the government lots of money, doesn’t it?

And then there’s sanctions. The report could highlight the inefficiencies and failures in the sanctions process, but it wasn’t allowed to say that the whole sanctions process is utterly unjust. It is, to put it bluntly, the legalising of a penal regime of destitution, wielded almost on a whim by the functionaries of the system who are too scared about losing their own jobs to be in any position to challenge it. Some of my neighbours have been living on just over £4 a fortnight as a result of sanctions, whilst living with multiple disabilities, compounded by illnesses developed as a direct consequence of their financial circumstances. The privatisation of the welfare industry means multiple failures in communication between bodies involved in imposing and lifting sanctions, and claimants having to travel miles – with what? when a return bus journey is more than a fortnight’s income? – for appointments that make no difference to their situation, having to prioritise ‘compliance’ meetings over hospital appointments and family funerals.

One of the other publications on my reading list at the moment is an international study spanning Global North and Global South, on The Shame of Poverty (Robert Walker, Oxford University Press, 2014). It states the obvious, but – like Emergency Use Only – backs it up with hard evidence: that the pain of poverty extends beyond material hardship; that rather than being ‘shameless’, as the media often claims, people in poverty almost invariably feel ashamed at being unable to fulfil their personal aspirations or to live up to societal expectations due to their lack of income and other resources. Such shame not only hurts, adding to the negative experience of poverty, but undermines confidence and individual agency, can lead to depression and even suicide, and may well contribute to the perpetuation of poverty. Public policies would be demonstrably more successful, the book argues, if, instead of stigmatizing people for being poor, they treated them with respect and sought actively to promote their dignity.

Who knew? You treat people like shit, and on the whole they stay stuck in the gutter. You treat people with a bit of dignity and respect, and they begin to be able to make life better for themselves. We shouldn’t need hundreds of hours of research and report-writing to help us understand that. And, I fear, the hundreds of hours of research and report-writing will largely fall on deaf ears. Has anyone mentioned revolution recently? It’s time to get angry, together.

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1 comment:

  1. Of course, we shouldn’t need hundreds of hours of research and report-writing to help us understand their dignity. I am writing a custom paper now and the chosen topic is too close to my essay's topic.