Last month, as the school holidays began, children and teachers breathed a sigh of relief. But at one school in Birkenhead, even as the bells rang to mark the end of term, staff were gluing children’s shoes together.
They were trying to save parents the added expense of buying new pairs for their children over the holidays, knowing full well that every pound spent on shoes would result in shrinking food budgets for families who, during term time, rely on the lifeline of free school meals.
This is just one of the innumerable examples of modern British poverty. The past decade has seen a growth in destitution that is unprecedented in the post-war era. When William Beveridge wrote his famous report in 1942, he said that the “abolition of want” was possible through a national welfare state and full employment.
But today poverty has returned with such vengeance that large numbers of people are going hungry, not knowing where their next meal will come from, while they are also on the verge of homelessness and unable to pay their utility bills. Destitution now hangs like the sword of Damocles over the lives of the poor.
If Christians aren’t disturbed by this, no group of the population will be. Indeed, Christians have often been at the forefront of responding to the new destitution.
The Christian input into anti-poverty work in Birkenhead, for example, through the network of food banks and other forms of relief, is hugely significant.
Since 2008, the growth in food banks has been the clearest way of measuring the damage done to the weak underbelly of society. Over that period, the number of food banks has mushroomed, with the Trussell Trust network alone growing from a handful of branches to more than 400.
So too has the number of penniless people, now totalling many hundreds of thousands, who visit food banks in search of adequate supplies to keep hunger at bay for a few days. More recently, food banks in Birkenhead and elsewhere have begun to add welfare rights services, debt advice and fuel banks to help to fight off destitution in their communities.
Food banks are one of several emergency services which have sprung up in recent years to meet the immediate needs of the hungry. Crisis hampers are delivered by an ambulance-like group of volunteers in Birkenhead to the homes of families and vulnerable people living alone who would otherwise go to bed on an empty stomach in a cold, dark home. Levels of demand are occasionally so high that the deliveries continue late into the night.
Along with giving food to the needy, the volunteers who run these services provide another crucial service – namely, their testimony. Their experience allows us to form a picture of the struggles facing the very poorest.
For the last few years, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger, which we set up, has been trying to build up such a picture. When we ran a parliamentary inquiry on the rise of food banks in 2014, we canvassed views from those on the frontline. It became clear that destitution has not re-emerged overnight; nor is it likely to disappear soon. It is not even unique to this country. Rather, the lengthening trail of human destruction in its wake has been made possible by the tightening grip on Western societies of economic and social trends that further disadvantage those who had least in the first place.
One hundred and twenty-seven years ago, Pope Leo XIII lamented that “a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the labouring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.” It is these trends that are re-emerging.
There was a time not so long ago when almost all families, even the poorest, had a small financial buffer to fall back on – perhaps from their savings, by turning to relatives and friends, or seeking help from the welfare state. Having this buffer meant that if a large and unexpected bill arrived, or a source of income was lost, families could generally cope without having to sacrifice food, gas or electricity.
But today, there is a whole new set of financial risks, and the insecurity has disproportionately affected those people who are least able to cope. For millions, destitution lies in wait, only a single missed payment away.
The labour market, for one thing, has changed. Many of the new jobs that have been created are low-paid, insecure and offer no route out of poverty. Food, utilities and of course housing have all become significantly more expensive.
Most appallingly of all, the welfare state is ceasing to be the last line of defence against destitution. In some cases, the benefits system is making life considerably harder for those at the bottom. A major chunk of the public expenditure cuts made since 2010 has fallen on family incomes.
All too many families’ Universal Credit payments do not arrive when they are most needed. These families are, as a result, left heavily indebted. The sometimes arbitrary and overzealous use of sanctions, too, has pushed large numbers of vulnerable people through the cracks.
Take John (not his real name), who recently came to Birkenhead’s food bank. He, his partner, and their two children were hungry. John’s job doesn’t pay a family wage, and his partner has been hit by a double whammy of benefit cuts. The first cut involved a large reduction in the family’s income when they went on to Universal Credit. Secondly, they suffered a steep drop in Personal Independence Payments. During the same week in which John’s family sought help from the food bank, their two children had to be kept out of school for two days because they didn’t have any money to buy lunch.
So much for social mobility. But it isn’t just the benefits system which is driving people to food banks: it’s also the low-wage economy. Another recent visitor to the bank was a woman who had been working in an Amazon warehouse on a zero-hours contract. She had gone into work and was told, along with seven other people, that she would no longer be provided with work as the company had taken on new staff. And that was that. She was left with no money, as her Universal Credit would not be adjusted to reflect her lack of earnings until the end of the month.
Clearly, two kinds of reform are needed to address this major source of injustice – and both can be seen in terms of Catholic social teaching. As Pope Pius XI emphasised in Quadragesimo Anno, people at the very bottom are left exposed to destitution if they have no protection from the state. So first, we urgently need reform to the welfare system if it is to provide adequate protection – especially for families and also for people who are disabled.
Secondly, employment law should be overhauled. The Government could do worse than take a page out of John Paul II’s book. He emphasised that society, through the state, must ensure wage levels are adequate for the maintenance of the worker. The National Living Wage is a real breakthrough, but it is not enough: the Government should rid the labour market of bogus self-employment, companies’ over-reliance on cheap forms of outsourced and agency work, and the abuse of zero-hours contracts.
Such measures are essential if Britain is to have, as Beveridge wished, a “national minimum” below which nobody is allowed to fall. In the aftermath of Brexit, as the country seeks a vision of the common good, this should be part of it.
But we cannot just leave it to the Government. Society also needs to find new ways of equipping families with essential life skills such as parenting, cooking and shopping on a limited budget.
A note of caution, though. While nobody would dispute the importance of civil society in helping the poorest people, we must not be beguiled into thinking that civil society alone – despite the importance it has of breathing a gentleness into our welfare system – is anywhere near a match for the challenge now confronting the poor.
Feeding Britain, an organisation which came out of the parliamentary group on hunger, has been working on the ground to respond to chronic poverty. In Birkenhead and elsewhere, it offers a programme of meals and activities for children during school holidays, often administered by local community groups in church halls, parks or children’s centres. As with our programme of school breakfasts during term time, we aim to prevent hunger – and give children the opportunity to learn. We are also using the evidence gleaned from these activities to campaign for broader changes in government policy.
These campaigns have seen some success. The government has given an initial tranche of £2 million for a national programme of holiday meals and activities for children.
It has also reformed prepayment meter pricing, to stop rip-off charges which had weighed most heavily on the poorest. And ministers have agreed to a new method of administering changes to tax credits, which has cut waiting times from eight weeks to eight days.
At the local level, too, we have seen changes. Birkenhead Jobcentre Plus has piloted a reformed welfare contract which buttresses the duties people have to look for work with rights to additional support while they do so. And some local authorities have introduced an automatic registration process for free school meals which, in Wirral, has yielded entitlement for many hundreds more children and netted local schools a £725,000 windfall in Pupil Premium funding.
Our wish, naturally, is for the Government to adopt quickly the series of reforms we have advocated, in particular to the welfare state and the labour market, to give more protection to people towards the bottom of society. That will remain the prime objective of our work in seeking a fairer distribution of risk and reward in British society.
In the immediate future, though, we must continue to seek and then implement innovative ways of preventing destitution in the first place. One such intervention, currently being introduced by Feeding Britain, is the “Citizens’ Supermarket”: a non-profit food shop and community café which enables vulnerable members of the community to purchase food at low prices for a limited period of time. The food is sourced, wherever possible, from good quality surplus stock in retailers’ and manufacturers’ supply chains, which would otherwise be thrown away or turned into energy. This food is then offered to a limited number of poorer households who are struggling to keep their heads above water.
The Citizens’ Supermarket aims to offer people some breathing space by allowing them to shop for good food at a low price in a dignified, welcoming environment, while at the same time offering the support they need to steer clear of destitution, including employment support and training, a welfare rights service, debt advice, new methods of saving, budgeting support, cooking sessions and other life skills.
Readers who wish to do something, and who are not already in touch with that part of civil society that is helping to counter hunger, ought to ask their parish priest how they can help with projects like this in their community.
Many more such interventions will be required to bolster the moral economy of the working class and protect the living standards of the poorest. Meanwhile, we will need constantly to monitor and reform the labour market and the welfare state. It will take a collective effort, from the corridors of power to the grassroots, if we are to consign destitution to the pages of history.
Frank Field is the Labour MP for Birkenhead. Andrew Forsey works for Feeding Britain
This article first appeared in the August 17 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here