Poverty in your own neighbourhood | food and clothing banks

I’ve been to my clothing bank twice in the last few weeks. 

No, times aren’t that hard in the Gin world – I’ve moved house and got all of my stuff out of storage.   I’ve given them lots of my old clothes – particularly suits from my office days.  There will be some very well tailored job seekers in Durham this year.

They also run a community pantry which provides food to local people in need.  They don’t call themselves a food bank, because they rely on vouchers or referrals, they are there for all. 

Dawn, who runs the pantry and clothing bank agreed that I could write about their work.  I wanted to compare her experiences with a new report from the Joseph Rowntree foundation.  

They have been running for 8 years, first out of Brandon, now from a community hall in Framwellgate Moor.  They see roughly 1000 clients a year, and demand is rising swiftly as a new recession takes hold.   The Daily Mirror called them the first of their kind in the country

Framwellgate Moor, where I live, is a nice neighbourhood, and not the kind of place you would expect poverty and hardship. I realise that I am stereotyping people who use food and clothing banks, but it is a shock to see one operating in a leafy suburb of Durham.

On the food side they mostly provide staples and tinned goods, on the clothing side a mix of mens and woman’s, mostly to refugees and people leaving prison. 

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report deals with deep poverty, that is people living below 40% of median income after housing costs. There are currently 6.5m people in deep poverty who go without the essentials of day to day life. The numbers living in deep poverty have increased by a third in recent years, and represent 10% of the population. While Sunak and Truss argue about tax cuts Councils and charities are planning warm banks for people who can’t afford heating this winter.

There are 3 particular groups of Clothing Bank and Community Pantry clients I wanted to write about because their hardship is a direct result of decisions made by the Government while I was a Civil Servant.     I worked in a DWP Quango when these policies were announced and it was clear that they were based on tabloid headlines about poverty rather than actual real people’s lives.   Sometimes Ministers encouraged the headlines that they subsequently based policy on, a cycle of spin and misinformation that fed some terrible policy decisions. 

Their hardship is not accidental, or the consequence of bad luck and haplessness.   It is the direct result of actions taken by the British Government over the last 12 years.  

The first group are families.     

Back in the days of George Osborne and his failed experiment with austerity a number of benefit cuts were implemented targeting families:  the cap on benefits for families with more than 2 children, and overall household benefit cap and large cuts to housing benefit.

Currently 11% of families with kids live in poverty, but this rises to 18% for families with 3 kids and 27% with 4 kids.  

I realise that people will argue that if they were on benefits they shouldn’t have had loads of kids, but this rather misses the point – most of these families weren’t on benefits when the kids were born – they were doing OK, but then hit hard times later on.  And once they hit hard times turning it around and escaping deep poverty gets harder and harder.

The second group that really struck me were older food bank users.   When New Labour were in power they worked incredibly hard to eliminate pensioner poverty, with very good results.  Since then Conservative Governments have courted older voters with the triple lock on pensions.  There is a perception that OAPs are on average better off than people in work, although this is distorted by housing wealth – lots of older people have seen the value of their properties soar due to Quantative Easing, while successive Conservative Chancellors have inflated a property bubble. 

What this has created is a very stark divide between people over pension age, and those just below it.   Pensions are now much more generous that benefits for people of working age, creating a group of people too young to claim their pension, but too old to work full time.  For a country which claims to have eradicated pensioner poverty a decade or more ago seeing older people queuing for food was shocking.

The final group, predictably, were people who were in hardship due to problems with Universal Credits.  I was interviewed by the National Audit Office when the first iteration of UC was scrapped writing off £500m taxpayers money.    

There was always an existential problem with UC.   Infinite CHOC.

CHOC is short for change of circumstance processing  – the administrative system by which someones eligibliity or liability changes according to their immediate circumstances.

The higher the levels of CHOC the lower the accuracy of the system, and the higher it’s operating costs.  Organisations public and private try and discourage CHOC wherever possible – that is why you can only change your tax code once a year, and why your insurance company charges you a fee to make change your policy details.

UC is based on the idea of infinite CHOC – every change to an individuals circumstances changes their elibilibilty in real time.   This just isn’t possible, and has made UC almost unmanageable. Ciients are waiting for months to have their initial claims processed, forcing them deep into poverty which they then struggle to get out of.   There is an absolute refusal from Government to accept this problem exists, which is why it is never fixed.  Hundreds of millions of public money has been wasted on failed IT solutions trying to fix a problem that has no solution.

So what should we do?

The Government faces an economy is stagnation with rising inflation. Rather than tax cuts, they could target low wages in the NHS and social care, which would not only tackle poverty, but also help ease an acute recruitment crisis.  We were promised that the rise in NI would go straight to the NHS, but instead it is being frittered away paying for Government mistakes and meeting the bureacratic costs of Boris’s bodged Brexit deal.

Scrapping the 2 child limit, lifting the benefit cap, and easing cuts in housing benefit would take lots of families out of poverty. Just like ending low wages in NHS and social care it would reflate the economy with a minimal risk of increased inflation. A commitment to end deep poverty for carers would have the same effect.

For pensioners we could adopt the Danish concept of  “Nu er det Arnes tur”  – the idea that someone over 61 but under pension age can start and access pensioner benefits if they have worked for over 40 years (this includes time out of the workforce to raise families).  This would help people who have worked hard all their lives, but are cut out of pensioner benefits due to age.  

But for Universal Credits there is very little that can be done.

I lived in Liverpool in the late 80s and I saw Care in the Community – at the time I thought it was the worst, the most heartless, the cruelest, most incompetent policy failure in post war British History.

But Universal Credits, combined with the jumble of benefit cuts and rule changes pushed through in the name of austerity is worse.   You can change the rules back, but Universal Credits is a cruel and dysfunctional mess.    It can never be fixed, and needs to be replaced by a new approach to benefits that makes ending poverty as important as tabloid headlines.  




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