20 million food parcels (and counting): what explains rising food poverty in the UK?

June 9, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Oxfam works on poverty in the UK as well as elsewhere, and is pretty alarmed at what it is facing there. Here Krisnah Poinasamy, Economic Justice KrisnahPoinasamyPolicy Adviser for our UK programme, introduces a new report on hunger in the UK.

Today, Oxfam and its partners released Below The Breadline, a shocking report, which estimates that 20 million meals were given out by three main food aid charities in the UK in 2013/14, up from 13 million in 2012/13. Voluntary organisations are stepping in to address hunger in the seventh richest country in the world. Alongside the proud cries of ‘it shouldn’t happen here’, should sit a broader question: will we ever see the end of hunger?

Before we pack our bags for the defeatist train, it’s worth bearing in mind the tremendous global progress on hunger in the past seventy years. Recently, I had the pleasure of hearing the Oxford Martin School’s Professor Charles Godfray present some of the solutions to sustainably and equitably feed a world of 9-10 billion people. Godfray noted how developed economies, especially the UK and US, have never spent less on food as a share of the country’s total disposable income. While this may be evidence of advances in more efficient production, it highlights the fact that just producing more food is not really the issue, distribution is. Globally, over 2 billion people are overweight or obese, and 2/3 of the obese live in developing countries – it is becoming clear that the problem is an unjust food system that overfeeds some and underfeeds others, often in the same countries.

Social protection on its last legs

In the UK, there are currently 13 million people – one in five – living in relative poverty, i.e. below 60 percent of median income. The immediate driver behind the phenomenal growth of food poverty in the UK is a social protection system that is no longer fit for purpose. Social protection in the UK has seen a significant increase in the use of sanctions, depriving people of government support for a minimum of a month, and a maximum of three years. Evidence of the sanction regime’s failure is apparent in the 58 percent of sanctions that were successfully challenged last year (and 87 percent in the three months to September 2013). In their place, voluntary sector food banks are plugging the gaps in the safety net.

food bank britainSanctions are not the only source of suffering. Basic support for working couples has barely risen since the 1970s, despite increases in average earnings. More recently, the age of austerity has abolished sensible solutions, such as crisis loans when payments have been delayed. Unsurprisingly, delays to payments are another driver of food bank use.

Falling incomes

Social protection has been the target of severe cuts in the past three years, with 1.75 million of the poorest families in the UK facing an absolute cut in their income. Significant, additional cuts to social protection are being planned by the current government over 2015-20. Such cuts are occurring despite the poorest fifth having already seen their disposable income fall by 11 percent, £936 a year, in real terms over the period 2005-12. In other words, the poorest are living on £18 a week less, even though energy bills rose by 37 percent between 2010 and 2013 and food prices by 44 percent in the eight years to 2013. So £18 less a week really hurts family budgets that were already at breaking point. These kinds of changes leave people with little money to buy food, forcing them to join the queues at the food banks.

The fall in incomes for the poorest has also been caused by a lack of decent work. The growth of vulnerable employment around the world has been mirrored in the UK, with the much celebrated falls in unemployment often driven by a rise in self-employment and increase in insecure, zero hours contracts. Since 2009, the number of people earning less than a living wage has increased 40 percent to 4.8 million and the UK minimum wage has fallen in real terms. Low wages and insecure work have forced increasing numbers of working people to turn to food banks.

UK households, on average, are buying less food yet spending more money. Comparing 2007 and 2012, those in the bottom income decile spent 22 percent more on food to buy 5.7 percent less. As Godfray highlighted in his presentation, the impact of the 2008 food price hike has been far greater among communities in sub Saharan Africa than in the global North. Nevertheless, it is the poorest around the world who are feeling the impact of food price increases most keenly.

The bigger picture

Cutting through the detail, these drivers are part of a bigger, long-run picture in which people in poverty are increasingly demonized by the media, zero hours contractspowerless in the workplace and voiceless on the political stage. This has both driven and underpinned further policy decisions to marginalise the poorest. At the roots of the problem is inequality, which seen the poorest 1.75 million driven deeper into poverty at the same time as the 1000 wealthiest individuals and families saw their fortunes increase by 15 percent to £520bn (equivalent to a third of UK GDP).

What can be done?

While country contexts will vary, the rise and fall of the UK’s welfare state should provide a warning to countries with younger and emergent social protection systems. Developing a system that provides universal support for those who have fallen on hard times requires constant vigilance in guarding against it being dismantled by the wealthiest and most powerful, as seems now to be happening in the UK.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century has shone a light on one of the key drivers of power and political capture – wealth inequality. Ideas like the Land Value Tax could both tackle inequality and provide a sustainable source for a UK social protection system. These are ideas that could have incredible importance for less mature taxation systems and ensure that wealth inequality does not become be entrenched.

Until we recognise the drivers of wealth inequality at the top, we are likely to continue to make false justifications for hunger and suffering at the bottom.