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The link between the rise of food banks and the rolling back of the welfare state

The link between the rise of food banks and the rolling back of the welfare state

When Mark told me that when he went to the Jobcentre to find out when his claim would be paid, and they sent him to the council’s Local Welfare Assistance Scheme, and the council in turn sent him to Citizens Advice for a foodbank voucher (because even ‘we are slow at sorting things out’), it perfectly reflected the silent rolling back of state welfare obligations through the emerging linkage between UK welfare institutions and emergency food providers.

Discussions on the phenomenal proliferation of foodbanking since 2010 rarely go beyond unsophisticated cross-party political point-scoring without addressing the unintended social consequences of its institutionalisation. The devolvement of crisis assistance to local authorities in 2013 – shortly after localising Council Tax Support and the introduction of the bedroom tax - has created the perfect storm to usher in a deliberate policy shift towards a residualised and spatially uneven form of social security in which, as Arthur Seldon argued many years ago, faith groups and charities are Burke’s ‘little platoons’ that form the pillars of a secondary but leaky safety net. Multinational corporates have quickly moved onto the turf to salve their corporate social responsibility, thereby legitimising the notion of hunger as a matter for charity and depoliticising debate on the right to food. Australia and Canada – countries where the foodbank model is established for over 20 years - provide sombre warnings of the vagaries and adequacy of ongoing corporate funding and donations – 65,000 people were turned away by food relief charities each month in Australia in 2013.

As the Children’s Society discovered, these new local welfare assistance schemes – the replacement for the Social Fund – have been designed with much tighter qualifying criteria and are invariably poorly publicised. One foodbank manager expressed regret at providing a referral arrangement to the local authority and irritation the welfare assistance scheme is so badly advertised: ‘what’s fascinating is that … even local authority teams … they don’t know it exists’. Unsurprisingly, both the design and referral to food banks means most local authorities radically underspent central government funding between 2013-14 and created a perverse justification for cutting central government funding of all local schemes in 2015.

My research showed local authorities viewed food banks as legitimate resources to ‘preserve the fund’ and saw it as a ‘neat fit’ despite acknowledging ‘a food voucher doesn’t really cut the mustard’ for sanctioned people excluded from their scheme. Different formal and informal policy mechanisms are used to gate keep claimants. For instance, one local authority saw it as reasonable to use their Interactive Voice Response message as a mechanism to filter claimants; by changing the tone and content of their message there was a 20% change in applications. The other city’s Benefits Manager  - in a Labour-controlled council – proudly aligned himself with the dominant perjorative ‘benefit scrounger’ rhetoric: ‘It’s not as easy to winkle the money out of us as it was the DWP … we have to eyeball them, we eyeball them … it is less easy for them to hoodwink us.’

The paradox in David Freud’s infamous comments that ‘food from a food bank – the supply – is a free good ... and there is almost infinite demand for a free good’ is that whilst his argument is countered by the foodbank voucher referral system, the availability to the local state of food bank vouchers is quite literally a ‘free good’ that allows it to substitute its own resources with those of charity. To many – including Freud - that is sensible and rational economics. It ignores though the unevenness of provision whether that relates to the adequacy of food parcels, funding streams, location, accessibility and opening hours. Indeed, the Head of Pubic Affairs for a large international charity told me the Trussell Trust model does not necessarily match provision with need as their food banks are often set up in a ‘posh town which is where that kind of church has sprung up’. 

Most importantly, it ignores the social costs of stigma and shame experienced by users. The absence of food is a social marker that restricts self-determination, denying basic dignity to people at their lowest ebb. The subtle changes in social provision – in effect contracting out welfare to discretionary forms of charity – is a form of structural violence that forces the destitute in our society to surrender their sovereignty and dignity to the whims of the local state, who now often act as the willing handmaidens of neoliberalism.

The last words should be left to Mary who expressed what applying for local welfare assistance meant to her: ‘I didn’t even want to go to into the library, I felt so small. Having to ask somebody for food, ringing, I were looking round in library to make sure nobody could hear me.’