Food banks, poverty and our broken Welfare State

2 Oct 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 2 Oct 2020

Pic: Unsplash

How has it come to pass that in one of the wealthiest countries on the planet so many people are dependent on the kindness of others to provide for their most basic of needs, food?

For more than 100 years there has been all-party agreement that we collectively have the responsibility for ensuring that all citizens have the minimal provisions for a good life.

This is the principle that underpins the Welfare State. A proportion of the tax we pay goes to providing a safety net for others.

Yet the 21st Century has reverted to the bad old days of the 19th when many citizens – or more accurately - subjects were dependent on the ad-hoc philanthropy of others to keep themselves and their families alive.

There is nothing wrong with kindness, it is one of the more attractive characteristics of humankind. However no-one should have to depend upon the caprice of others in order to survive. That is the duty of the state.

At a time when the third sector has been battered, first by austerity, now by pandemic one area has grown exponentially – food banks.

These organisations are run by good people and good people donate to them. But they should not exist. They should not be necessary, not here, not today and the fact that they do is a stain on us all.

Most of all their existence is a stain on the Westminster government and is a manifestation of an egregious American import – the notion that people who are poor deserve to be so and that those who are unemployed or have disabilities deserve to be stigmatised and shamed.

The Trussell Trust is the largest and best-known network of food banks in the UK. It has just published a report examining the impact of the pandemic on the use of food banks. It is alarming and depressing and demonstrates the need for the return of an effective Welfare State.

Even before the pandemic struck the Trussell Trust had experienced sharp rises on the number of people unable to afford food across the country. In 2019/20 1.9 million emergency food parcels were handed out by the network.

The overwhelming number of people resorting to them were classified as destitute.

This is how the report defines the term: “Those that are destitute experience a severe form of poverty, with measurement focusing on life’s necessities. Those that are destitute often must go without the bare essentials that we all need to eat, stay warm and dry, and keep clean.”

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that in 2017 1.5 million people in the UK experienced destitution at some point, including 365,000 children.

Many of the factors which make people destitute are a result of government policy:

  • the five week wait for the first payment of working-age benefits, and sanctions and delays to the process;
  • the fact that benefit levels  have been frozen since 2015;
  • debts, including those to public authorities and harsh recovery-practices


One step up from destitution is deep poverty defined as income 50% below the official breadline. Before the pandemic 4 million British subjects were in that category, 7% of the population. In cash terms this means a couple with two children would have an income of less than £211 a week after housing costs, and a single parent with one child would be on less than £101.50 a week.

So before the pandemic there were large number of people on the brink. 25% of people receiving Universal Credit before the pandemic had problem debt, compared to just 8% of the general population – and 43% of people receiving benefits have had to take on debt to buy essentials such as food.

Wage stagnation for those in work meant that income in real terms was falling for many – and this in turn means that so few have any savings to fall back on in hard times.

Six in 10 (59%) households in the bottom 20% of household incomes have no savings, compared to 9% of households in the top 20%. And one in three (30%) low-income households stated before the pandemic that they couldn’t manage for a month if they lost their main source of income.

This was the parlous economic situation faced by many households when the virus struck.

The onset of the pandemic saw an unprecedented response both from the Treasury and the local administration.  In Northern Ireland, £7.8 million was spent on an emergency food parcel scheme for those who were shielding or could not afford food. Other initiatives included the suspension of benefit deductions for overpayments and loans and a Discretionary Support Covid-19 Short-term Living Expenses Grant.

These measures undoubtedly had a significant impact, supporting millions. However there were big gaps which left many without support (the recently self-employed and those made redundant before the furlough packages were announced being two obvious examples.)

The report states: “As Covid-19 hit the UK, the Trussell Trust saw an immediate and sustained surge in need across its food banks. In April there was an 89% increase in the number of emergency food parcels given out compared with the same month in 2019. This included a 107% increase in the number of parcels given to children, compared to the same period last year.”

The situation is not improving. Across the UK 2 .7 million people were receiving out of work benefits in July, more than double the 1.2 million receiving these benefits in March. There were also 5.6 million people claiming Universal Credit in mid-July, up from 2.9 million in February. This shows that as well as all those who have been made redundant many more have lost income from work, due to shortened hours and other factors.

Looming ahead is the prospect of further losses of jobs and hours of work as the government’s emergency support is lifted and the inevitability of the numbers in destitution rising.

The Trussell Trust finds that a large proportion of people using a food bank during the pandemic owed money to the Department of Work and Pensions. The reasons for these deductions being made can include repaying advance payments taken out during the five-week wait or repaying benefits which may have been overpaid in error.

People with savings are stripped of most of them before they can even claim Universal Credit. In the first few months of the pandemic 300,000 were refused UC because they had savings of more than £16,000.

The Trussell Trust report uses two different models to project the impact of the pandemic on its services by the year end. The lower estimate is that it will be distributing an additional 300,000 emergency parcels, meaning that food banks give out over six parcels per minute over the quarter with an additional 670,000 people destitute during the period. The higher estimate suggests the number of emergency food parcels would go up by 800,000 across the UK.

There has been much that has been written about what we need to learn from the pandemic and what needs to change. Most of it concerns working practices, environmental changes and health reform.

The Trussell Trust report identifies another fundamental question, one that poses the question as to what type of society we have become and what we are going to do about it.

It demonstrates the need for us to restore our broken Welfare State, to ensure that every citizen has the basic means for a decent life. We need to work for a time when there are no more food banks, a period when we will look back in anger at the days when there was any such things as The Trussell Trust.

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