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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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On Food Banks

Friday, December 13, 2013

When I was 16, we used to have classes in something called Personal and Social Education - now no doubt
rebranded as "21st Century Citizenship" or some other equally vacuous title. Our teacher for the classes was someone who I respected very much, which may be why one remark she made has always stuck in my memory. Being at that time possessed of an environmentalist streak (I'm still today a somewhat apathetic member of the Green Party) I was shocked when during a debate about charitable giving she said that she would never donate to animal charities like the RSPCA because those organisations that look after human beings should come first.

With hindsight, I can see how this was a perfectly sustainable anthropocentric position, though no doubt the likes of Peter Singer would argue otherwise. Indeed, her influential comment has informed my own pragmatic views on charities. As a wage-earning adult, I have only set up direct debits to charities that work in the developing world. My reasoning is that a pound spent there will go much further than a pound spent here in the UK. The same pound might feed a child in Africa for a day through Oxfam, but given to Cancer Research UK it would barely contribute anything to a project to find a cure that might work some time in the future. Do not get me wrong: domestic charities from hospices to medical research do enormous amounts of admirable work to support quality of life. Yet it is hard to think of many that actually save lives to the same extent and with the same per-pound efficiency as charities like the Red Cross or Oxfam do in developing world situations. This is because here in Britain we also have such a thing as the welfare state, which provides a basic safety net. Unlike in the developing world, nobody in the UK will starve, freeze to death, or die for lack of healthcare because society as a whole will supply these basic humanitarian needs.

This probably seems a coldly utilitarian attitude. But if it does, then it should offer a chilling perspective on modern Britain that I have decided that I have to adjust my principles and start supporting charities in the UK, because I am no longer convinced that the last sentence of my paragraph above holds true. Pragmatically, charities in the UK are no longer a nicety to support quality of life, but an essential to sustain it. Foodbanks are the most obvious example of this. They are an increasing feature of daily life for hundreds of thousands of people, and make the difference between malnutrition and even death for the poorest in our society.

The welfare state, which used to provide the basic safety net that is lacking in developing countries, is now so torn that thousands are falling through the holes. Benefits are no longer working; they have been cut and bureacratised to exclude and discourage those who need them: the cancer-sufferer who has been told he has months to live but has his benefits stripped by ATOS; the disabled person who has lost their benefits because their Job Centre advisor "misinterpreted" the paperwork in order to hit their sanction targets; the single mother who cannot work because the cost of childcare would outweigh any salary; the young NEET who cannot afford to go to college because taking the vocational training that might get him a job would remove his benefits.

The Tories would have you believe that most who use welfare are scroungers, and that benefit reforms are the necessary protection against the majority who cunningly exploit it. It is in this vein that the millionaire Tory peer Lord Freud suggests that the explosion in food banks can be explained by the law of supply: give more stuff away free and more people will grab it with both grubby hands, an attitude which sums up the Tory view of the welfare state in a nutshell. Those of us on the left, however, believe that their growth can be explained only by the law of demand: food banks are serving an increasing need that the welfare state no longer does. Now I am not naive. Based on personal experience I have no doubt that welfare is manipulated by many - but just not by the majority. The ones who need welfare most take it with humility and out of genuine necessity. Most families in poverty are already working, but are unable reliably to support themselves without benefits because the minimum wage is set too low or because zero-hours contracts make their working hours erratic.

This is why today - on the back of this article - I've decided to start supporting the Trussell Trust, the UK's biggest food bank charity. This has not been an easy decision, and not only because it radically reverses my previous principles. There are many on the left who would argue that by supporting this charity I am in fact helping those who want to see the welfare state dismantled. By passing the buck to charity, the state can abrogate responsibility for running a welfare system that the post-war consensus traditionally saw as essential.

I can appreciate the principle. However, I think it ignores the reality. The hope on the left is that if the cuts keep going for long enough, if enough people suffer, and if or when charities prove unable to take up the slack of the mighty state, then eventually people will see through the government's divide and rule tactics and its rhetoric of strivers and scroungers and demand change. The trouble is that this argument hinges on the belief that at some point the poor will start to fight back so that the government will have no option but to reverse its welfare reforms. This simply is not going to happen. The poorest in our society have no voice. Generally, they do not tweet; they do not write angry letters to their MP. Given that the police are more than happy to beat articulate students at the merest whiff of dissent, imagine what would happen were the unwashed urchins to take to the streets. The revolution that some commentators hope will bubble up if we can stick it out for long enough is not going to happen. The need is right here and right now.

Charity is the new reality in twenty-first-century Britain. It is up to those of us who pay our taxes to support what's left of the welfare system, but have a little bit of change to spare, to help. If this post probably seems horribly vainglorious, it's not meant to be. It is, instead, a sign of how far we've come since I sat in that classroom at the age of 16, and thought that charity begins abroad.

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Posted by Alistair at 10:00 am

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