Hunger is a political choice

By Bernadette Meaden
April 25, 2019

Today there is much discussion of food poverty and food insecurity, as a report from the Children’s Future Food Inquiry and new figures from the Trussell Trust show the shocking extent of hunger in the UK. 

I dislike these terms, food poverty and food insecurity.  Of course we need the concepts, as we need to know how many people in the country are going hungry. But the terms can sometimes be a distraction from what the real problem is, which is poverty.

The problem is not a food problem, it’s a money problem. It’s people and families who do not have an income high enough to afford the basic necessities of life, who continuously face the choice between paying the rent or buying food, paying the Council Tax or going to the supermarket. And even when they go to the supermarket, facing severely restricted choices about the variety or quality of the food they can afford.

And of course, this didn’t just happen, it’s not a natural phenomenon. It is the result of political choices.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, with wages falling in real terms, the incoming government in 2010 chose to embark on what it boasted was the biggest shake-up of the social security system in sixty years. In that shake-up, a lot of things got broken. At a time when people most needed support, the support was gradually withdrawn. We now have a social security system which patently does not do the one thing it exists to do – keep people out of poverty and destitution.

But despite the increasingly grim reality it has created, the government continues remorselessly, steadily making things worse, creating more poverty. On social media, ‘mythbusters’ try to persuade people that the bad things they may have heard about Universal Credit (UC) are not true. Amber Rudd insists it is ‘a force for good’. But the facts say otherwise.

A new report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that “the introduction of UC is a regressive change, with poorer deciles tending to lose more from the reform, both in cash terms and as a share of income.” Universal Credit “disproportionately reduces incomes among poorer adults”. And with what is now the familiar modus operandi of welfare reform, many with the most difficult lives, who are most disadvantaged and vulnerable, lose most.

Overall, says the IFS, Universal Credit represents a cut in entitlements of £2 billion per annum. Additionally, the two child limit and removal of the family element will save the government around £5 billion per year, and the benefit freeze, which runs until March 2020, saves the government £4 billion per year. That represents a huge loss to the poorest individuals, families, and communities in the land.

It is hardly surprising then that we learn today that foodbank use is rising relentlessly. New figures from the Trussell Trust show an 18.8 per cent increase on last year, with 1,583,668  emergency food parcels given out –  more than half a million of them going to children. And let’s not forget, these figures only represent part of the hunger. There are at least 805 independent foodbanks not represented in these figures, so the problem is actually much bigger.

To say this hunger is not directly linked to government policy is simply to deny reality. The facts speak for themselves. The Trussell Trust figures show that the main reasons for people needing emergency food are benefits consistently not covering the cost of living, and delays or changes to benefits. As the Trussell Trust’s chief executive Emma Revie says, “What we are seeing year-upon-year is more and more people struggling to eat because they simply cannot afford food. This is not right.”

The fact is that people are going hungry because of decisions the government has taken. The government could stop them going hungry, but it chooses not to.

Professor Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur who visited the UK last year said,“Poverty is a political choice. Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead.”

It follows that hunger is a political choice too. The poverty caused by political decisions, the benefit cuts and welfare ‘reforms’ that have withheld billions of pounds from the poorest people and communities in the country have caused hunger on a shameful scale. The government cannot say it doesn’t know about it. We can only conclude that it doesn’t care.


© 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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