Please Sir, Can I Have Some More? How Britain’s Vulnerable Live on the Outskirts of Poverty

November 19, 2014
Please Sir, Can I Have Some More? How Britain’s Vulnerable Live on the Outskirts of Poverty
Feyaza Khan
Feyaza Khan Researcher - Guest Blogger

One in five people in the UK live below the country’s official poverty line according to the charity Oxfam. If you compare the UK to my home country of South Africa, which has roughly the same population (59 million to Britain’s 64 million) but a GDP ranking in the mid-30s, the question arises as to why-when Britain is the world’s 6th largest economy.

South Africa has 23 million of its people living below the poverty line, and while that is not acceptable, it’s understandable.

In the UK, almost 150,000 people were fed by foodbanks in 2012- a figure that more than doubled the next year.

By contrast in South Africa, poverty numbers have been declining steadily over the last five years according to the Poverty Trends Report.

So, what’s causing 13 million people in the UK to struggle everyday, having to decide between food and heating?

Many analysts blame this new crisis on benefit cuts, which the new coalition government has brought about; without the government funding to top their salaries and rising living costs, people are simply not earning enough to support their families.

Since 2010, Britain’s coalition government has cut benefits to families, the elderly and disabled.  The coalition, which has been derided in left-wing media for being run by a majority of private school-boys has been accused of being out of touch with the reality of the average citizen’s life.

Whether or not this is true, the figures show that hundreds of thousands of people who are deemed to have an “extra” bedroom in the UK have up to 25 percent of their benefits cut by the government; this has caused many to be referred to foodbanks or go hungry.

According to KHT, a non-profit housing association in Merseyside, a year after the bedroom tax and other benefit changes were introduced, average rent arrears in households went up by 35 percent.

The Trussel Trust is a charity that coordinates hundreds of foodbanks across the UK. Initially the Trust used to collect funds for the underprivileged in Bulgaria. However, their creators realised there was a problem in their home country when a woman refused to give them money on the grounds that she herself was starving. The couple sent the woman away with some food and started up foodbanks across the country.

The foodbank is a community resource. At some of them, people are given hot meals when they arrive and can meet with someone who will try to help them through their crisis.

Generally, foodbanks are tied to a main charity and have links with local supermarkets, where they have drop-boxes. Members of the public use these drop-boxes to put in non-perishable items like rice, pasta and tinned goods, which are then passed on to foodbanks to distribute.

People who attend the foodbanks are referred by doctors, social workers or benefits agencies that recognise their needs. In a six-month period, a person is only allowed a total of 9 days of food, so a culture of dependency isn’t created. If people are referred more than twice in a 6 month period, the foodbank organisers get in touch with the referral agency to find out why the client’s problem has not been solved successfully.

Even so, many are embarrassed to take advantage of this resource. In some instances doctors say people have either been cutting down on meal sizes or skipping them altogether rather than go to a foodbank.

Liam Hannan is the Manager of the Manchester Central Foodbank, he said: “There is some stigma the first time people come to us but after that they are happy to come back. We give out vouchers to people who are referred and only 60% come back for food vouchers. I have absolutely no idea why 40% don’t come back but I suspect that stigma plays a big part in this.”

Hannan says over the last five months, more medical professionals are referring patients to the foodbanks, as they have seen a rise in malnutrition and poverty, which had not been seen before.

The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which is a registered educational charity that is independent from all political parties, has researched the issue academically. It blames the problems in Britain on the current government’s new laws that raise the daily cost of living for families.

In fact, it says all politicians push for policies that make themselves look better but actually lead to essential costs like childcare, housing and energy going up for the average family.

The IEA Director General, Mark Littlewood says: “Times are tough for millions of families up and down the country. But this will not be fixed by introducing new laws, taxes and regulations. To really reduce the cost of living (in Britain) politicians must urgently tackle the root causes rather than impose populist quick fixes”

The British Medical Journal has warned that the rise in food poverty has “all the signs of a public health emergency” and while Liam Hannan doesn’t think the situation has quite come to that yet, he agrees life has become difficult for the average citizen.

He said: “We have people who come to us from the (prison) probation service and find life quite frustrating on the outside, they say ” At least inside you’re given your meals”. The vast majority of people don’t want to offend but don’t feel they have any other choice, I’ve spoken to a woman who did time because she needed to feed her kids. She lost everything and I would have liked to have helped prevent that.”