Tag Archives: job security

Food insecurity – Britain or Burkina Faso?

Screen Shot 2017-06-30 at 16.54.20It might disappear from the headlines, but the food bank story is not going away. A new report has come out about food banks – this one is a survey carried out by Oxford University to find out some of the circumstances of people who go to food banks.

Among other things, the research found that:

78% of households were classified as severely food insecure – that is to say they had missed meals, or not eaten at all (sometimes for days at a time) because they did not have enough money for food, and this was an experience repeated every month or nearly every month in the last year.

50% of households experienced other forms of destitution, such as not being able to afford essential toiletries or not having enough money to heat their homes for at least four days in one month.

These circumstances are shocking to read. But what really struck me was the language used to describe them. People are going to food banks because they are destitute. Just pause for a moment. What does that word conjure up for you? To me it feels like a word we should have left behind with Dickens, paupers in Victorian London about to be cast into the workhouse. But in Britain today, there are families who are that close to the edge that we describe them as destitute.

And then there’s the phrase food insecurity. Usually I encounter that phrase when I’m at work at Christian Aid, talking about farmers in Burkina Faso, or those caught up in the famine in East Africa right now. Communities who don’t have enough margin of resilience to be sure they will always have enough to eat. And yet households in the UK are food insecure. Because of chronically low incomes, or unpredictable incomes, they do not have the resources to ensure that they have enough food. A feature of the developing world can be found in the fifth richest country in the world.

The use of food banks continues to rise. In the last year, the Trussell Trust gave out 1.18 million food parcels, and they are just one of many providers. Meanwhile, calls to implement policies that might address the problem and reduce food bank use are ignored. The people I know running food banks all say they are a sticking plaster measure. They do not provide a long-term solution, just a stop gap in an emergency. But the longer they exist, they more they feel normal, and the more they unintentionally collude with government policies that have created the need in the first place.

So are food banks here to stay? Are we happy with that? Is food charity part of the welfare state now? What has happened to our social contract where we expect to be caught by the safety net in times of need because we have pooled our resources through our tax and national insurance? Churches and other groups have seen the need and responded with compassion, but you are out of luck if that compassion hasn’t extended to your town or local community. Is that fair or equitable?

Before we decide that charity and food hand-outs are a legitimate solution for the UK, it’s worth going back to places that have long-term experience of food insecurity. What are the solutions in Burkina Faso or to famine in East Africa? Food hand-outs are absolutely only an emergency response. In the long-term, sustainable solutions are needed so that those experiencing food insecurity become food secure. Solutions that include making sure people have an adequate income, and a reliable income. Income might be unpredictable because of climate change in Burkina Faso and because of benefit delays in the UK, but food hand-outs are not the adequate response to either.

Food banks are one big, obvious symptom of life in austerity Britain, where there are jobs, but they are low-paid and insecure, there are benefits, but they are deliberately delayed, where support for the disabled is rationed and where debt is on the rise. This is why people are destitute and food insecure, and a food parcel is not going to change that.

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Deconstructing unemployment figures

For every one of those people who has found a job, it is good news that the number of people in employment has risen. I only spent a few months looking for work, and every rejection saps your confidence while the bills keep coming in. But figures which record more people in work and fewer people claiming Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) are pretty meaningless on their own.

For a start, the two measures are not entirely correlated – someone finding a job is not necessarily someone coming off benefits. I was never claiming JSA while I was job-hunting. Likewise, someone coming off JSA is not the same as someone finding a job. The current stream of people relying in desperation on food banks thanks to the brutal system of punitive sanctions is testament to that. This, I think, is at the heart of the Bishops’ recent criticism of government policy. Finding yourself with no money for four or six weeks without warning is hardly going to inspire hope.

But even if we accept that more people are finding work, the figures still do not tell the whole story. I’d like to know what kind of work people are finding. During the recession, thousands and thousands of people in the public and private sectors were made redundant. Many of these jobs were full-time, well-paid, permanent contracts with secure terms and conditions. The labour market has been badly damaged since then, with less security for workers, and an increase in short-term, part-time, low-paid jobs. The fuss over zero-hours contracts has died down, but the situation remains that people can get such a job, their JSA stops, but they don’t get any income because they don’t get any work.

We need to see more than the headline figures before we decide if the economy is really getting better. It is important that we know that the number of people who are self-employed is continuing to rise – great if you want to measure entrepreneurship but not so great for job security. And the number of people working part-time is also still 46,000 more than this time last year. This should be considered alongside the measure of people working part-time only because they can’t find full-time work – currently almost 5% of everyone who is working, or 1.4 million people, nearly as high as it has ever been.

The other price we have paid for a rising number of jobs in an environment of weakening workers’ rights is a drop in the real value of wages. Inflation may be falling, but at 1.9% it is still higher than the latest figures on weekly earnings increase of 1.1%, and we have got several years of rising prices and falling wages to catch up on. And for those on the lowest wages, rising prices have a bigger impact, as food and fuel take up a bigger proportion of household spending.

Finding a job is a good news story for every individual involved. But before we hail it as good news for the economy as a whole, and a sign of our economic recovery, I’d like us to evaluate the quality of the jobs which are being created. We need more full-time jobs, permanent contracts and better wages. This needs to include actually enforcing the minimum wage to root out unscrupulous employers, and moving as a society towards the living wage to ensure that being in work means you can actually support your family.