A decade ago, the emergence of mass food banks in the UK could genuinely be described as shocking. The image of families queueing in their local church for a box filled with pasta and beans has not only since been normalised, it has spread.
This does not simply mean the number of food banks has grown in recent years – there are now more than 1,300 such places in the Trussell Trust’s network, compared to fewer than 100 in 2010, as well as hundreds more independent ones – but also that these have opened the door for other types of donation centres, each set up by community groups and charities in response to growing need.
As squeezed social security, low wages and high rents have left 2.4 million people in destitution, everything from clothes banks to hygiene product drop-off points have cropped up nationwide. When your zero-hours contract doesn’t pay out, you get your shampoo from a donation bin instead of Boots. If you have cancer and have been rejected for disability benefits, fruit and veg comes not from Tesco but your local food bank. Nowadays, Britain has an entire ecosystem of charity to meet our basic needs: donated dignity filling in where the state once stood.
The pandemic has, all too predictably, made things worse. Almost one in eight adults in the UK have received support from a charity since the coronavirus crisis began in March 2020, according to the Covid-19 Support Fund; more than half of them had never expected to need such help before. Demand for food aid has hit an unprecedented high, with the Trussell Trust handing out 2.5m parcels during the pandemic’s first year. Meanwhile, the Hygiene Bank – a network that provides toiletries for people who can’t afford them – reports it has distributed over 400 tonnes of products over the last 12 months, up 155% from the previous year.
While Britain’s richest 10% increased their wealth by an average of £50,000 during the pandemic, the poorest struggled to afford deodorant. The Hygiene Bank says that, over the past 12 months, due to a lack of money or resources, people have used washing-up liquid to wash clothes; brushed their teeth without toothpaste; and stayed at home because they didn’t have any period products. Some even removed the contents of a nappy so that it could be reused. The modern term for this is “hygiene poverty” but really, it should just be called obscene.
As hardship has increased in recent years, so have the ways we found to describe it. Fuel poverty. Food poverty. Period poverty. Such language falsely suggests the problem is confined to one area, as if destitution doesn’t arise from systematic economic inequality, but from soap being too expensive. The truth is that millions of people simply do not have enough money to live on.
The increasing use of charity to address this not only normalises the idea that large numbers of people are destitute in one of the richest economies on Earth – it shores up the idea that government has no responsibility for it. It is Victorian-style politics repackaged for the 21st century, in which those on the bottom rung of society are deemed worthy of scraps of charity but not entitlement from the state. Forget contracts for private firms, this is the new outsourcing – where ministers fail struggling families and then hand them over to the local food bank.
This is not only wildly inefficient – piecemeal charity can never replicate a social safety net – it is also dehumanising. Poverty has long brought shame to those who endure it, and few things could feel more shameful than being forced to ask for donated soap in order to be clean.
The end of government coronavirus support in September is only going to bring this into sharper focus. Furlough ending, as well as the £20 uplift to universal credit being pulled, on top of cuts to funds to help tenants facing homelessness, will create a perfect storm in which large swathes of the population risk being plunged into insecurity. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found the £20-a-week cut to universal credit alone will leave out-of-work families with children barely half the income needed to achieve a socially acceptable basic standard of living, while those with a job who rely on benefits as a top-up to poverty wages will fare little better.
The Conservative response to these challenges is now so familiar it verges on cliche. Just look at Tory MP Andrew Rosindell who defended the benefit cut on the grounds there are some people “that quite like getting the extra £20” but “maybe” don’t really need it. And yet sooner or later, there is going to have to be a push to do better, not least because middle-class people are now also queueing in food banks.
If Covid has shone a light on the ills of 10 years of Tory rule, it has also highlighted that only sweeping reforms will change it. The gap between reality and Boris Johnson’s “levelling up” rhetoric could hardly be starker. It is only concrete action that can lead us down a different path: on housing, disability, insecurity at work, and the gaping holes in our welfare state. A government that leaves millions of the public unable to even eat or wash has, by any definition, failed. Poverty is indeed a mark of shame – but one solely on ministers’ shoulders.