Article The World We Want In partnership with the UNDP

Should more be done to prevent poverty in the UK?

Picture credit: Paul Downey on Flickr

The Carmarthen food bank is situated on the outskirts of this West Wales town, having moved to accommodate the growing number of food bank users over the past few years. Emergency food parcels used to be handed out in a small office but are now given out in a larger warehouse, where there is currently 4 to 5 tonnes of food. In total, over the three and a quarter years the Carmarthen food bank has been running, about 18 tonnes of food has been given out to local people.

It has been well documented that poverty is on the rise in the UK. There have been numerous TV programmes and newspaper reports on the subject and awareness of the issue is increasing, but there are still families who are struggling to pay for essentials, let alone luxuries and some of them are going without or resorting to other measures to pay the bills.

However charities and organisations are bridging the gap, helping people with nowhere else to turn, families and individuals who are often working.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, an organisation campaigning for lasting change for people and places in poverty, says that there are currently 6.7 million people living in working poverty. The foundation thinks that an increase in zero hours contracts is one of the reasons why families are struggling.

Katie Schmuecker, policy and research manager at The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, says, “Zero hours contracts are just one aspect of the UK’s problem with in-work poverty.”

The children’s charity Barnardos has also seen a rise in working families struggling to make ends meet. According to the charity, there are 3.5 million children living in poverty in the UK, 1.6 million of whom live in severe poverty. Again, this isn’t just restricted to children whose parents aren’t working, as 63% of children living in poverty are in a family where someone works.

According to the debt charity Step Change and its ‘Life on the Edge’ report, people on average income, families with children and people in full-time work are most at risk of falling into debt. Worrying still, the organisation says that 13 million people do not have enough savings to keep up with essential payments for a month if their income dropped by a quarter and many are even using credit or payday loans to pay the bills.

Step Change says that low wages and rising living costs are behind families struggles. The charity found that almost 4.5 million adults were in insecure employment, temping, zero hour contracts or short contracts and 4 million saw their hours at work reduced.

Mike O’Connor, the chief executive of Step Change, says, “Millions of people are living on the edge financially and are not prepared for the future. Even with economic growth, consumers are likely to face interest rate rises and increases in costs of essential goods and services.”

Barnardos too has seen families barely surviving on what they have and says families living in poverty can have as little as £12 per person per day, to buy food and pay for all bills and transport.

There are many reasons why many UK families are not earning enough money. Where there used to be more help, in the form of benefits from the government as well as a lower cost of living, the gap between living costs and wages has increased remarkably over the last few years. The minimum wage, currently at £6.31 an hour, falls far short of what the living wage should be, according to website Living Wage. It says that workers in London should be getting £8.80 an hour, or £7.65 for workers in the rest of the UK, in order to have enough to live on. Currently that means that workers being paid the minimum wage in London are falling short by £2.49 an hour and those in the rest of the UK, by £1.34.

Although the minimum wage is rising to £6.50 this October, this will still leave some individuals out of pocket and relying on handouts from charities, who are bridging the gap where the government isn’t.

The Trussell Trust, a non-political Christian organisation set up in 1997, helps struggling families by giving them emergency food parcels. The charity works with churches and organisations who then give out food vouchers to people who need them.

Such is the need for food banks that, in the year 2013-2014, 913,138 people were given three days worth of food by The Trussell Trust, an increase of a third from 2012-2013.

There are now over 420 Trussell Trust food banks in the UK. In Carmarthen, the food bank is run by a local church using the Trussell Trust’s manuals and policies. Food bank manager, Share Bower, says that, in the three and a half years the food bank has been running, it has helped many different groups of people. The current top five reasons people are sent to the food bank are because of benefit delays, benefit changes, low income, debt and domestic violence.

“Benefit delays is the top one at present,” Share says.

Although financial problems are behind a lot of the reasons people require assistance, Share explains that the food bank also helps groups of people not affected by the economic downturn. When the Carmarthen branch started, Share says, it was helping a lot of young people who were estranged from their families and has also helped people who have been affected by house fires and domestic violence.

Share says, “We do get a lot of people through the domestic abuse services, and obviously they will need the service whatever the political or financial climate is of society.”

She explains that the Carmarthen branch is responsible for collecting and distributing food to locals in need. The food bank also sources voucher holders, usually organisations and agencies in Carmarthenshire who know the individuals or families and can give out food vouchers for three days worth of non-perishable food.

In total, families can only receive three vouchers a year, for three days at a time, as the scheme only provides food for when people reach crisis point and not during hardship.

Share explains, “I know a lot of people do say that people who use foodbanks are scroungers, but nine days of food a year isn’t going to get anybody particularly far. It is just for that crisis point.”

The food bank is non-judgemental and Share explains that people who attend are made to feel welcomed and relaxed. They are also given advice about other sources of help if staff feel that they don’t have the right help for their situations.

Share says, “Our aim is for them to be sorted longterm. We’re not here to become reliant on. We want people to be properly sorted and self-reliant for the future.”

Share says, “People come here for a lot of reasons. Some are to do with deaths in the family. Some come because of sickness. These various instances will often lead people to be in debt as there is no reserve to help pay for funerals or when they’ve been off sick. We do help people from all walks of life. We’ve actually had people who are homeless that, at one point, had their own businesses and have lost everything. So we see lots of different people.”

Share too sees people on a low income, such as families who are working but still can’t make ends meet. Share says she has also heard stories of other food banks helping families during the school summer holidays, as the children were able to get free school meals during the term time.

She doesn’t think there is an easy answer for why there has been an increase in food banks. She says that The Trussell Trust are good at promoting their food banks and so people are becoming more aware of their existence.

She says, “The increase in the use of food banks is partly because obviously there are more food banks to access, but also because of a change in dynamics of both the benefit system and the financial climate. Food costs are going up and the cost of living is generally going up but wages aren’t going up accordingly.”

Share says that the Trussell Trust would like to see political parties realise that food poverty is a fact and to work on a solution together. It is important to note, she says, that the organisation is non-political in any way and just want to focus on fixing the problem, not to debate whose fault it is.

She says, “I think foodbanks will always be needed to a certain extent because some of the things I’ve said aren’t related to any political or financial climate that the country is facing. Whether they’ll be needed in the quantity they are is debatable.”

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