The question we were asked to answer today, was “are food banks a sign of hope or failure?” I think we all know the answer to that – or at least we think we do. Here’s my story. You might think you know it already, but listen carefully. Here it is without any media spin, without any internet commenters, without any details carefully left out by left wing or right wing newspapers that don’t want to upset their readers.
I’m a girl called Jack. I’m 25 years old, and I was unemployed for 18 months and claiming benefits. However, I had my first job at the age of 14 or 15, working as a waitress in a local restaurant owned by a family friend, earning myself some pocket money on a Saturday and Sunday. Before that, I had spent weekends at my grandfathers guest houses, folding sheets and making tea for a tenner in my back pocket. I have worked in retail, in coffee shops, and eventually, Essex Country Fire and Rescue Service.
I left the Fire Service after having my son. I returned from maternity leave to find that working two day shifts and two night shifts, on different days and nights every week, with an 18 month old boy to look after, was next to impossible by myself. Comments on the internet imply that I sailed out of my job because I knew the welfare state would pick me up. I did no such thing. I hung in to my job for months, with my son’s father, his family, my family, my friends, and the local Sure Start nursery, taking turns to look after my son from 7am when I left the house to travel 30 miles to work, until 8pm when I got back through the door. And that was just the day shifts. My Filofax was full of names and numbers, and up to three different people would look after that baby in a day. The Sure Start centre wouldn’t be flexible around my shifts, so I paid £175 a week for that childcare – childcare that didn’t really suit my needs or cover my working pattern.
So I applied for flexible working hours. Other people on my watch worked flexible hours, starting at 9:30 instead of 9am, finishing earlier or later around their partner’s shift patterns or childcare needs, so I put in a request. I wanted to start slightly later and finish earlier on days so I could leave my son in nursery and leg it to the train station, and make up the hours on my night shifts. The Fire Service turned down my request. I asked if I could apply to go for a ‘job share’ post, working just one day and one night for half the salary, and was told that there was nobody to job share with. I applied for day work roles that came up on the internal noticeboard, doing home fire safety checks at Rayleigh closer to home, working with young people in a behavioural scheme at Southend fire station, and my applications were rejected. I still talk about my job, I loved it, and I think it’s fair to say that I tried everything I could to keep it. I most certainly did not just “walk away”.
In fact, I resigned from a hospital bed at 2 o clock in the morning. My GP had signed me off sick with stress a fortnight before; I had gone to see him with a migraine and he listened to me for five minutes before concluding that I was a wreck. One too many incidents of Friend A forgetting to pick Small Boy up from nursery, or someone getting sick and letting me down, or picking up my son after what felt like a week away from him and wondering what the hell effect it was having on him, being passed around like a package from one day to the next. I woke up having overdosed on a combination of prescription beta blockers and sleeping pills, and decided that my health and my son’s welfare came before trying to cling on to a £27,000 salary. I wrote the email on my mobile phone, and felt simultaneously relieved and terrified. What now?
My friends and colleagues told me that I would be okay. “You’ve been in the Fire Service”, they said. “Employers will chew your arm off.” “You’ll get a job closer to home, with better hours.” “It’s the best decision.” Friends that had watched me decline into a wound-up madness, told me to take a week to relax and spend time with my son, and get my head straight. I did.
I felt a surging pride, updating my CV, that I could type “Essex County Fire and Rescue Service” into my recent work history. A well-respected, uniformed organisation. Hundreds of people had applied for my job back then, and I got it. I thought I was going to be okay.
But the novelty wore off quite quickly. After you’ve typed “Essex County Fire and Rescue Service” into a few hundred online job applications, you no longer feel proud of the uniform you once wore, but resentful that the name of the organisation is so bloody long.
Poverty in modern Britain was historically punished. Poor Laws saw infant children split from their parents and sent to work and live in work houses. Gradually we civilised, moving to a more supportive structure that is now demonised by the right wing press as a “welfare state”. Like it’s a bad thing. Now there is a failure to recognise that adequately fed and housed people are more effective workers than those who are hungry, or their jobs insecure.
George Osborne spoke on BBC Five Live yesterday about “drawing the battle lines”. We are all familiar with the phrase “war on welfare”. My father is a Falklands veteran. My brother has just returned from yet another tour in Afghanistan. It is frankly an insult to their service to this country to describe the savaging and damaging cuts to the support structures of this great nation, to compare the two. This is not a war. It is an assault against the unarmed, a massacre of hope and dignity.
This “war”, like every other, waged mainly by middle class men in suits, disproportionately claims the livelihoods of women and children. The single mothers did not cause the banking crisis. The elderly and disabled are not to blame for tax avoidance by big companies. My son did not sell off the social housing and refuse to build any more. But the real casualties are hidden from headlines and public view as we are told that the economy is recovering. For who? At what cost?
Wars are the result of decisions made at desks, in offices, people shuffling statistics and ideas around with scarcely a thought for the implications on the battle ground, only the outcomes that they desire. Casualties are reduced to numbers, as ink is far easier to live with than bloodied hands. But what use – and we heard from our friend at the end of the table earlier that there were ‘only 565 food bank users in Cambridge’ justified as he mentioned the population of 82,000 people in his constituency – what use are numbers? There’s ‘only’ half a million food bank users in the UK. Less than one per cent. What use are numbers, when you are one of the 565, not the other 81,000 or so? What use is a one per cent chance, when that one per cent is you? What sort of a society do we live in where people who go out to work every day to provide for themselves and their families cannot afford to do so, but their situation is justified in a statistic? Why are you not ashamed, Sir, that there are FIVE HUNDRED AND SIXTY FIVE people in your constituency who desperately cannot afford to feed themselves and their families?
Because that’s what it boils down to. As much as the likes of Lord Freud and Edwina Currie would have you believe that ‘anyone’ can turn up to a food bank to top up the Ocado delivery with a couple of tins of dented tomatoes and some slightly black bananas, the reality is very different. The reality is that you need to be identified as being in need, by a social worker, a health visitor, a child care provider, your doctor. Someone needs to recognise that without their intervention, your family are going to go hungry. They direct you to a food bank for help. A lot of people don’t go, because of the shame and the stigma attached to queuing up outside a community centre to beg for food. Because I’ll tell you now, even after months of attending, it feels like begging. No matter how kind the volunteers, how discreet the carrier bags, you have to look someone in the face who knows that you are desperate and not coping and that your life is falling apart.
You pledged, the Tories, to continue the Labour Party’s aim to end child poverty by the year 2020. Far from ending, three years in, the number of children in poverty has leapt by 300,000.
When I say ‘poverty’, you probably conjure up images of children far away, of TV appeals and ruthless dictators. But this, this is a country riddled with poverty. Turning off the heating and missing days of meals is not cosy frugality. Try it. Turn off the fridge because it’s empty anyway. Sell anything you can see lying around that you might get more than a quid for. Walk everywhere in the same pair of shoes in the pouring rain, with a soaking wet and sobbing child trailing along behind you, into every shop and pub in unreasonable walking distance and ask if they have any job vacancies. Try not to go red as the person behind the counter appraises your dirty jeans and tatty jumper and tells you that there’s nothing. “Not for you”, you add in your head. Trudge home. Pour some tinned tomatoes over dome 39p pasta and try not to hurl it at the wall as your son tells you he doesn’t want it. “I want something else Mummy,” but there isn’t anything else. But aren’t we just supposed to be grateful for our little scraps of tax payers money, and keep calm and carry on? Because that can’t possibly be poverty, not in the sixth richest country in the world with the benevolence of the welfare state. That’s austerity, isn’t it?
Many parents tell of going to bed hungry themselves in order to feed their children. Michael Gove would call that reckless parenting. Edwina Currie would call them opportunists. They repeat, despite the alarming amount of evidence to the contrary, that it has nothing to do with welfare cuts. The three food banks opened a week by the Trussell Trust can’t possibly be related to cuts to Housing Benefit, Council Tax Benefit, the Bedroom Tax, benefit sanction, can it? For a party that claims to have such a brilliant grasp of economics, I don’t understand how you can fail to realise that when you sever a portion of someone’s income, they have less to spend. That some people don’t have the £14 a week to make up for the Bedroom Tax. That the policies that you voted for, the battleships you moved around maps in offices or the soundbites that sounded so good from a charismatic leader appealing to your hard working nature – that those policies are the reason why half a million people are going hungry. Why my son, went hungry.
You ask if there is a subsidy that can ‘plug the gap’ – and I am astounded. Astounded that you can pull a rug out from under someone’s feet with such glee, and then have the audacity to look bewildered that they have fallen over and ask if they need a hand up.
So to answer the question – food banks are a hope. They are a society in action. They are all that half a million families have, plastering over the wounds inflicted by “austerity”. So donate something to them. UHT milk, formula milk, sanitary towels, nappies, tinned tomatoes, tinned pulses – anything ambient or non perishable. Because if the food banks grind to a halt before the mess is sorted out, where will we be then?
But food banks are also a disgrace, and the underpinning issues that lead people to their doors need to be addressed. More cuts to the poorest people in our society is not the answer. Instead of “making work pay” by penalising those who happen to find themselves out of it, why not campaign for a living wage instead? Use your power and influence to ensure that people who work don’t have to rely on charity food handouts, but instead have an extra £38 a week to spend back in their local economies? To buy food for themselves and their families? To reduce the welfare bill through less eligibility in benefits, because of higher wages, not more draconian rules.
Food banks are doing a brilliant job of pulling people out of the river. But you need to now go upstream, and stop anyone else from falling in.
Jack Monroe, Conservative Party conference address, 1st October 2013.