Holiday hunger and the DWP's response

By Bernadette Meaden
August 4, 2018

Last week the Trussell Trust issued an urgent call for donations to its foodbank network, in anticipation of a surge in demand from hungry children during the school holidays. Many low income families who rely on breakfast clubs and free school meals will struggle to provide food over the summer. Shamefully, ‘holiday hunger’ has now joined the growing lexicon of terms used to describe poverty and destitution in our country.

It was good to see that the Trussell Trust didn’t shy away from indicating the cause of this development http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/26485). The Trust’s Director of Operations Samantha Stapley said, “Foodbanks cannot, and must not, be a long term solution to hunger at any time of year… no charity can replace people having enough money for the basics…Our benefits system can, and must, act as an anchor to protect people from being pulled into poverty.” 

With responsibility thus laid at its door, the Department for Work and Pensions, issued a response on Twitter.  Let’s unpick it.

“We are committed to supporting families to improve their lives" The number of ways in which, through austerity, the government has actually made it much harder for families to improve their lives are too numerous to list here. Suffice it to say that last year the government's entire social mobility commission resigned  having published a report  which said “for young people it seems that the link between demography and destiny is becoming stronger rather than weaker.”

"and employment remains the best route to achieve that.” There are several problems with this. Firstly, the DWP continues to doggedly ignore in-work poverty, despite the fact that its own figures show that two-thirds (67 per cent) of children growing up in poverty live in a family where at least one person works. Nor does the DWP seem to give any consideration to children whose parents can’t work, through disability or illness. An adequate and properly functioning social security system would ensure children do not go hungry, whatever their parents’ circumstances, but at the moment it clearly does not.

“We recently announced a £2 million fund for organisations to support disadvantaged families during the school holidays, which can include providing healthy meals.” Again according to the department’s own most recent figures, there are more than four million children living in poverty, so that’s a contribution of less than 50 pence each, for healthy meals over six weeks.

“Meanwhile we have a record employment rate," Yes, the record employment rate is the DWP’s constant boast, but it never seems to wonder why this coincides with record foodbank use, in-work homelessness, and rising child poverty levels. Could it be that the government’s determination to drive people into any job, under any terms and conditions, may have devalued labour and created a situation where large numbers of people are earning their poverty, in low paid, part-time, insecure work? And that when people take those jobs, their earnings are no longer topped up to adequate levels through the benefit system, after benefit cuts and freezes?

“household incomes have never been higher” This is, frankly, silly. Not because the statement can’t be true in some sense, but because it is so vague and meaningless in relation to the subject at hand. It’s like when the government says it’s “spending more than ever before” on education or the NHS – if it doesn’t match rising demand, then it’s not adequate. And household incomes may be higher in general, but that does not preclude some having fallen. It certainly does not take into account households which have applied for Universal Credit and are waiting weeks, even months for a payment. Or households hit by a benefit sanction, or a disastrous Work Capability or PIP assessment, which are all too common. Or the fact that, even when benefits operate smoothly, they are now so low that people can barely survive on them. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said in its Destitution in the UK 2018 report, working-age benefits need to rise ‘so they at least keep up with the cost of essentials and do not create destitution.’ 

“and there are 300,000 fewer children in absolute poverty than in 2010.” This is a carefully chosen statistic which is not quite as good as it sounds, mainly because of the way ‘absolute poverty’ otherwise known as ‘absolute low income’ is calculated. As this Parliamentary briefing explains, the DWP defines absolute low income as an income below 60 per cent of (inflation-adjusted) median income at a base line set at 2010/11 levels. So at a time of record employment, just 300,000 families have managed to lift their income levels above that. Not terribly impressive. And too many people are experiencing not just poverty, but destitution.

“Our welfare reforms offer parents tailored support to move into work,” This may have elicited hollow laughter in some quarters. The one thing that would help many parents get into work would be the ready availability of affordable childcare, which is sorely lacking. But Universal Credit, instead of improving this situation, is making matters worse for low income families. Save the Children has pointed out that childcare support under Universal Credit is paid in arrears, meaning parents must pay expensive fees upfront. “Parents are trapped between going into debt to afford childcare and turning down work because they can’t risk household direct debits bouncing.”

“ensuring that even more families can enjoy the opportunities and benefits that work can bring.” Which brings us to the end of the DWP’s statement, and back to where we began. Yes, work can and should bring opportunities and benefits, but for too many people it doesn’t, which is why they struggle to feed their children during the summer holidays.

So the DWP can present its own rosy picture, but more and more people around the UK are experiencing the reality, which is hungry children and desperate parents. And teachers who see children "visibly less well nourished" when they return to school in September.

It is always important to bear in mind, when considering these issues, that there are many independent foodbanks and other providers of food aid which are not part of the Trussell Trust Network. So Trussell Trust figures do not convey the true scale of the problem.

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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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