Funding has been approved by the government for a research project titled ‘Factors driving the use of food banks’. A leaked Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) document indicates that this research will seek to determine who operates food banks and “the extent of food aid” they provide. It will also address more complex questions around what influences food bank usage, including how government policies may have impacted usage. This will be the first research of its kind carried out by the government after years of inaction despite crisis level food bank usage figures. A recent UN survey indicates that 8.4m people in the UK are food insecure, and food bank use has increased 384% since 2012 with up to 1.2m people now using them annually.
The government’s newfound interest in exploring the issue is surprising considering their attitude up to this point, which has consistently blamed individuals when trying to explain why more and more people are turning to food banks. Possible motivation for this initiative may have been the anticipation of critical commentary by charities and in the press, on the controversial rollout of Universal Credit, including reports that food bank usage has increased significantly in areas where the new system has been put in place. Whatever the impetus, any investigation into government policy and food bank use which shares this individualistic view of economic inequality is inherently flawed, as it ignores the wider social and political forces which underpin poverty in the UK.
My own ongoing (ESRC funded) qualitative research is primarily focused on the experience and views of staff and those accessing food banks, in the context of the structural and political aspects of food banking. It involves interviews with people providing and accessing food bank services in Liverpool. Most of the latter were doing so either due to problems related to the social security system or because of the inadequate level of financial support provided. I have found that links between social security cuts, changes and delays and food bank use were frequently highlighted by participants.
Several other studies have also linked features of government social security policy with increased food bank use (see for example Sosenko et al., 2013; Loopstra and Lalor, 2017; Loopstra et al., 2018). Furthermore, the latest figures from the UK’s largest food bank organisation, the Trussell Trust, show that 41.47% of people accessing food banks give either “benefit delays” or “benefit changes” as the reasons for having to use the service. The other major reasons given, such as low income (28.49%), debt (8.53%) and homelessness (5.01%), are also likely to be, in part at least, connected with social security practices, delays and changes.
While it is beyond the remit of my research project to establish whether government social security policy is causing or exacerbating food poverty, almost all of the participants in my research, as well as many other researchers, believe this to be the case. In the course of the project I documented many accounts which paint a bleak picture of the referral of people to food banks by jobcentres.
For example, Clara (all names have been changed) said that when her social security payment was delayed she enquired about the possibility of emergency funding only to be told by jobcentre staff: “no emergency funding, you get a voucher.” Thomas was also offered a food bank voucher by the jobcentre due to delays in his payments: “I was on job seekers’ allowance, but when I come off that you go onto Universal Credit, and that takes up to six weeks, so what are you meant to do for six weeks? And that’s what I went to job centre about, and they said, they just give me advice, and he said do you want a thing for the food bank so.” Food bank staff are also aware of the impact of payment delays, which are a feature of the social security system. Maria, a volunteer, made the point that “people are just expected to be able to survive without food or without fuel for an indefinite period of time sometimes, yes it may be seven days, it may be three weeks, it may be three months.”
Many senior government figures have cast doubt on narratives like these in relation to food banks. The current Environment Secretary, Michael Gove said in Parliament in 2013 that the need to use food banks is “often as a result of some decisions that have been taken by those families which mean that they are not best able to manage their finances.” The Secretary of State for Wales Alun Cairns blamed an “inability to manage money and to budget” and “neglect by the benefit recipient”, thereby locating the cause of the problem well away from any government action or inaction. Current Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab went so far as to argue in 2017 that “the typical user of food banks is not someone that is languishing in poverty, [but] someone who has a cash flow problem episodically.”
Other prominent conservative politicians, including the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Esther McVey, have tried to avoid responsibility for the food bank crisis by arguing that large numbers of people in the UK being forced to rely on private charities is to be expected, normal, or even positive, in times of economic austerity. With this outlook, the government glosses over the reality of the experience of poverty and implies that people using food banks live in a vacuum. It ignores altogether the possibility that there may be varied socioeconomic reasons which influence people’s incomes and skills.
The very fact that the DWP has now commissioned research investigating whether its policies are contributing to the increases in food bank usage represents a shift in policy or at least a desire by the government to be seen to be taking a different approach. The planned research, regardless of the motives, is a recognition that their policies and approach to date haven’t worked and that food banks are not going away. Furthermore the leaked proposal reveals an apparent intention by the government and the DWP to reverse a trend of policy inaction on food poverty and to attempt to establish concrete facts and figures concerning food bank usage. This is welcome because non-governmental research into food banks has often been disadvantaged by the lack of official data on the issue, but it must be treated with caution.
Any new report on the links between policy and food bank use must, in order to have any credibility, address this issue with a broader view of the causes of poverty generally, and the factors driving food bank use in particular. The latter cannot be understood by the kind of constant reference to individual responsibility that we see from government statements and which informs their poverty and social security policies and approach to social issues more generally.
Unfortunately, there are indications that there will be little consideration of this in the commissioned research report. The research objectives and questions outlined in the proposal focus on “longer term life events/ difficult personal circumstances” and “individual factors which drive food bank usage”. Examples given of such “difficult personal circumstances” are “long-term unemployment, ill health/ disability, persistent low income, debt”. The wording and presentation here seem to imply that these four major social issues are the responsibility of individuals to deal with themselves. These ‘personal’ factors are contrasted with problematic aspects of the Universal Credit rollout, which the DWP seems in this document to be open to acknowledging as falling into their sphere of responsibility.
The research proposal does not inspire great confidence that government policy or even the tone of its approach is changing all that much. It indicates some willingness to consider that aspects of the government’s policies may be driving food bank use. Yet the language is infused with the ideology of an individual conception of poverty and a belief in minimal state responsibility for addressing what are characterised as personal issues. Another reason for doubting that any substantial changes will result from this report arises from the research question dealing with whether the “administration of benefits” is a driver of food bank use. The follow-up research question asks whether “any small changes in policy design” which might address this can be identified (emphasis added). This disappointingly indicates that major changes are not on the cards. For the report to have any significance in terms of reducing food poverty it must not only investigate and identify the drivers of food banks use, it needs also to acknowledge that the government’s understanding of poverty may be a key factor.
The government’s individualistic view of poverty is problematic and does not explain why people turn to food banks. The vast increase in the numbers of people accessing food banks in the past decade has occurred in the context of radical cuts in government spending on social security under successive Conservative-led governments since 2010. Chief among these are the ‘benefits freeze’, sanctions and the introduction of Universal Credit. Their response to food poverty to date has been characterised by inaction, minimisation, normalisation and reliance on the charity sector. This has fostered – or at least created the conditions for – the growing institutionalisation of food banks in the UK, as well as the social stigma surrounding the experience of poverty itself. If it is the case that aspects of the social security system are major drivers of food bank use then any solution must necessarily involve major changes to that system.
Alan Connolly is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University with research interests in the areas of social policy, political philosophy and economic inequality. His Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded PhD research examines the growth of food banking in England in the period from 2010 to 2018, utilising the Liverpool City Region, the city with the highest use of food banks in the UK, as a case study. He tweets at @connolla.