Holiday hunger, period poverty, and economic justice

By Bernadette Meaden
September 7, 2017

In recent years a range of new expressions have been added to our language which, although developed with good intentions to highlight specific and particularly distressing aspects of poverty, can serve to obscure the ugly truth of what we have come to.

Phrases like ‘holiday hunger’ and ‘period poverty’ risk atomising the shameful reality of growing destitution, breaking it up into manageable bits which can be tackled without the radical measures which are needed to achieve justice.

Period poverty? Add some tampons to our next foodbank donation. Holiday hunger? Set up a holiday club where children will be fed. But whilst these responses are vital gestures of generosity and compassion, they also serve to some extent to mask the truth.  It may be stating the obvious, but families unable to feed their children during the school holidays are unlikely to be prospering in term time. Mothers who can’t afford sanitary products will struggle to afford many other essential items - children’s shoes, school uniforms, council tax, rent and utility bills will all be a constant, crushing worry. And no matter how kind people are at the foodbank, imagine the utter embarrassment and humiliation of admitting you need donated sanitary products. Think of the sleepless nights and the inner turmoil that precedes the moment you make that admission.

Identifying and ameliorating some of the most shocking aspects of poverty is vital work, but it can obscure the reality that, ‘Currently, families in which both parents work full time for the ‘national living wage’ are 13 per cent (or £59 per week) short of what they need to give their children a minimum living standard... In non-working families – for example, where someone is unemployed, sick or a carer –  the income gap is even starker.' 

Foodbanks have literally stopped our fellow citizens starving, thank goodness. But in doing so, have they also unintentionally provided cover for an increasingly unjust economy and the ongoing erosion of social security?

Four years ago Frank Field MP wrote to David Cameron expressing, “concern that foodbanks are becoming an institutional part of our welfare state“ and the hope that this scenario could be prevented. Four years on, foodbanks have proliferated and Mr. Field is introducing a Bill which, whilst it will provide a desperately needed lifeline for hungry children, accepts and underlines the fact that millions of families in our country now can’t afford to feed their children properly.

Mr. Field’s School Holidays (Meals and Activities) Bill proposes using some of the proceeds of the tax on sugary drinks to fund activities and meals in the school holidays for children who would otherwise go without. Mr. Field says, ‘If the Prime Minister were to pick up this bill and run with it, at nil extra cost to the Government, she would tackle overnight one of the great injustices afflicting children in this country: a widening of inequalities at school caused by a lack of food during the holidays. Likewise she would immediately be cutting off one of the main supply routes to food banks.’

Of course if the Bill becomes law, and children are prevented from going hungry, then it will be infinitely better than the alternative. And it will be good that the State has taken responsibility to make such holiday provision comprehensive, instead of the charitable and partial patchwork we have now. But whilst the Bill may address the injustice of children falling behind in the new term because they went hungry in the holidays, it leaves in place, and perhaps risks further normalising, the terrible injustice that millions of children and parents live in poverty in a rich country.

Their poverty is not due to personal failings, as many Conservatives seem to believe. It's not an act of God. The fact is that people on low incomes have been hit by a double whammy - an economy that increasingly denies them a fair share of the nation’s wealth, and government policies of austerity and welfare reform which have hit the poorest hardest.

A new report  from the Commission on Economic Justice says that since 2010, whilst GDP per head has risen by 12 per cent, average earnings per employee have fallen by 6 per cent. The share of national income which has gone to wages has declined while the share going to profits has increased. As the Archbishop of Canterbury says, “Our economic model is broken”, providing neither prosperity nor justice for too many families. No matter how hard they work.

Meanwhile, the social security benefits that were designed to support people on low incomes have been systematically cut and frozen, and child poverty will rise as a direct consequence of government policies. (One can only hope that the Conservative MPs supporting Frank Field’s Bill will also begin to see the poverty-creating role of policies they voted for.)

Against this background, measures to tackle ‘holiday hunger’ are a very welcome first step, which we should all support. But they do not really represent justice. Justice would mean the essentials of life being affordable to everyone.

We have to ameliorate the symptoms of poverty - but we must make even more effort to bring about the economic justice which would prevent such poverty in the first place.

Food poverty, fuel poverty, funeral poverty, holiday hunger, period poverty – it’s all just poverty. It’s destitution and degradation, and we need to radically change our economy and our politics to eliminate it.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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