Last year, more than 20,00,000 meals were handed out to people living in food poverty: but just what has caused a 54% rise in just 12 months? Why is food bank use soaring?
The Rt Revd Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury says: “People who are using food banks are not scroungers who are cynically trying to work the system. They are drawn from the six million working poor in this country, people who are struggling to make ends meet in low-paid or bitty employment.”
The report Below The Breadline, a collaboration between Oxfam, Church Action on Poverty and foodbank charity The Trussell Trust, has investigated what has caused the explosion of foodbank usage and what is causing poverty in 21st Century Britain.
It has identified seven key areas:
- Living costs
- Food costs
- Energy prices
- Low wages
- Zero hours contracts
- Social security changes including the Bedroom Tax
The Bedroom Tax – or the spare room subsidy – was established as part of a package of changes to the welfare system in 2012. Council housing tennants are, in effect, fined for under occupying a property.
Research undertaken by Oxfam and the New Policy Institute in April 2014 found that as a result of cuts in Housing Benefit and changes to Council Tax Support, around 1.75 million of the poorest families have seen an absolute cut in their income. Of these, 480,000 families are seeing their social security being cut twice, as they are affected by more than one of the changes.
The Below The Breadline report includes a case study from Carol from Knowsley. She said: “I’m in a two-bed flat. I’ve applied for a one bedroom (flat) but there just aren’t any there. So I have to pay bedroom tax – I’m on discretionary housing at the moment which I have to apply for every three months. I’ve only got three months until I’ve used up my entire 12 months. Then I’ll have to start paying £12 a week but I won’t be able to pay it. It’s a constant worry. I’ve never been on anti-depressants before but I am now because of the stress from being sanctioned and having no money. I need them now to cope.”
The bedroom tax is just one of a range of measures that have affected changes to the way in which social/council housing is managed in the UK.
In April 2014, 780,000 of the poorest families were experiencing a shortfall in their Housing Benefit as a result of the social security reforms since April 2011. Around 410,000 (52 percent) of these families are private renters affected by the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) changes; 345,000 (44 percent) are affected by the under-occupation penalty (commonly known as the bedroom tax) and 28,000 (4 percent) are affected by the overall cap on social security payments. On average, their Housing Benefit has been cut by £10.48 per week. There are 1.4 million families who have to pay on average £154 per year (£2.96 per week) in council tax, which they didn’t previously have to pay before April 2014.
These changes are having a significant impact on food poverty. The proportion of clients accessing Trussell Trust food banks due to a change in social security payments increased from 12 percent in 2011/12 to 18 percent in the period April – September 2013. Fifty-two percent of referrals between April and June 2013 were due to problems with social security.
Oxfam, Church Action on Poverty and The Trussell Trust have found that just one change to social security payments can seriously affect a family’s ability to cope, but that more than one change, compounded with rising living costs and stagnant wages, greatly increases the need for emergency food.
Sanctions, a system introduced in conjunction to changes to the Job Seekers Allowance, means that unemployed people can face losing all their benefits if something goes wrong, such as a missed appointment. If a claimant is found not to be complying with the criteria, sanctions (or penalties) are issued, which can lead to their social security payments being withdrawn: four weeks for a first offence, up to 13 weeks for a second offence, up to 26 weeks or three years for a third offence.
Of the Trussell Trust food banks surveyed in March and April 2014, 83 percent reported that benefits sanctions have caused more people to be referred to them for emergency food in the last year.
A case study in the Below The Breadline report focuses on Carol, who called to rearrange a Jobcentre appointment due to illness. It led to her being sanctioned for six weeks because there was no record made of her calling Jobcentre Plus to cancel her appointment, even though she went to the rearranged interview and all seemed well.
Research by Policy Exchange found that 70,000 jobseekers have had their social security payments withdrawn unfairly, leading them to rely on food banks to feed themselves and their families.
Of those that appeal against their sanctions, 53% are successful.
But what of the other factors?
Costs have shot up in recent years: food prices have risen by 43.5% since 2005, , with rises ranging from 24% to 55%. Households purchased 4.7% less food while spending 17% more in 2012 than in 2007. But, those in the bottom 1% for income spent 22% more on food in 2012 than in 2007 and bought 5.7% less.
Those in food poverty are buying cheaper, lower quality food and spend less on fruit, vegetables, meat and fish – but they can’t trade down to the value ranges because this is what they were already buying. The lowest-income households (the bottom 10%) simply had to buy less food.
In the report, a case study from Mary who lives in Bristol, says: “The supermarkets are doubling prices on everything and it’s always on the value ranges … Tuna used to be 30p in the Tesco value range and it’s now 89p!”
Energy costs have also been soaring. Between 2010 and the end of 2013, costs for household gas and electric have risen by 37%, with the Citizens Advice Bureau warning that prices have risen eight times faster than average earnings. This is an increase of three times the rate of inflation.i Average household energy bills are now £1,152 a year although household usage has declined since 2002 by 17%.
‘It was March and April time and when my meters run over I had no electricity. No lights, no cooker, no heat. I’d just take myself up to my bedroom and just wrap myself up in my bed.’ Melissa, Manchester.
The UK has one of the highest levels of housing costs in Europe, with people spending an average of 40 percent of their income on rent or a mortgage. Historically low levels of house building have also applied in the social housing sector, with the result that 1.8 million families are waiting for social housing.
Housing costs have risen sharply, especially for renters in the private sector, with rents increasing by 67% 2002/03 and 2011/12. Renting costs are rising by twice the level of incomes, to the point where average rents are unaffordable in almost half of English local authority areas.
A recent survey by YouGov and Shelter found that nearly 4 million families were only one pay cheque away from losing their homes, and that 2.4 million families would lose their home immediately if they lost their jobs tomorrow. Shelter identifies high housing costs and stagnating wages as the causes of this situation, with people living from month to month with no money left over to save.
UK average weekly earnings fell in real terms in the year to February 2013. While wages only increased by 1%, annual inflation (as measured by the Consumer Prices Index) was 2.8% in the same period. This has added pressure on families.
The low pay situation has been compounded by the rise of zero hour contracts. Underemployment is estimated to have increased from 7.1% of the UK workforce in 2008 to 10.5% in 2012. The TUC estimates that almost half of all new jobs created between December 2010 and December 2012 were temporary and there are now 1.4 million zero-hours contracts in the active workforce.
Niall Cooper, Director of Church Action on Poverty said: “Protecting its people from going hungry is one of the most fundamental duties of Government.
“Most of us assume that when we fall on hard times, the social security safety net will kick in, and prevent us falling into destitution and hunger.
“We want all political parties to commit to re-instating the safety net principle as a core purpose of the social security system, and draw up proposals to ensure that no one in the UK should go hungry.”