Food banks are simply feeding the problem

Date:03-06-2013 07:58:06 read:9

Food banks are simply feeding the problem

Charities say 500,000 people are using the resource but today’s 'paupers' are the product of an over-generous and non-judgmental welfare state

A volunteer at the Hammersmith and Fulham food bank run by the Trussell Trust Photo: AFP/GETTY

Nothing is easier than for the well-off to blame the poor for their own plight. To do so soothes the unease that the comfortable feel at the sight of the uncomfortable. Adam Smith, the great proponent of economic individualism, explained the reason for this unease at the beginning of The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others… Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for misery of others, when we see it.”

To avoid, then, “deriving sorrow from the sorrow of others”, with the consequent necessity to do something about it, we blame the poor. If only they behaved better, we tell ourselves, they would not be so impoverished.

There is, however, an equal and opposite temptation, namely to see the poor as inanimate objects, flotsam and jetsam on the vast sea of economic forces. They contribute nothing to their own lives; they are, in the words of Marullus, blocks, stones, worse than senseless things. And there has been plenty of this kind of attitude in evidence in the way the increasing numbers of food banks in Britain were reported in our newspapers.

It is, of course, true that a rapid increase in the use of food banks points to something other than a sudden coincidence of the choices that many individuals make; and a study by Oxfam and Church Poverty Action has found that 500,000 people are now using them.

Despite the fact that food banks seem a logical idea in a country in which it is estimated that a third of all food is thrown away, the sight of people queuing for charitable handouts of food is unlikely to please anyone. “Dickensian” and “Victorian” are the words that come to mind, and not with any pleasant connotation. We are returning to the world of Mr Bumble the Beadle rather than to that of Mr Pickwick of the Pickwick Club.

It is possible to draw the wrong conclusions from any phenomenon, however. The main villain of the piece, for most commentators, is the reduction in state benefits that has left people with insufficient money to buy food. Here, though, I am reminded of when I was in Egypt during some bread riots. The government, for excellent economic reasons, wanted to reduce subsidies on bread that had led not only to massive demand and dependence (the Egyptians ate more bread than any other people in the world), but also to distorted and absurd use of bread, for example to feed livestock.

The riots that followed the attempt at bringing the price nearer to the market one proved that it is much easier to institute subsidies than to eliminate them: a lesson that politicians seem never to learn. They repeatedly act as if they believe that Madame de Pompadour was the greatest political philosopher of all time, and take her cynical witticism as their guiding principle: Après nous, le déluge.

What the recent expansion of food banks makes unavoidably clear, as a spotlight illumines a previously dark corner, is that our welfare state has in effect pauperised a considerable proportion of the population, a pauper being a poor person dependent upon public support for his sustenance: pauperisation, moreover, that has been procured by means of borrowed money. We have mortgaged our future that our population might be paupers.

Our social policy has consistently acted in favour of pauperisation, even in supposedly good economic times: we have made the difference between low-paid work and benefits almost non-existent; we have done everything possible to smash the family as an intermediate source of support and solidarity between the individual and the state; we have so failed to educate people in poor areas that they are incapable of adapting to the demands of a modern economy, which is one of the reasons why, in times of mass unemployment, we must still import foreign labour; we have created a housing market so rigid that the unemployed poor cannot move to where there might be work.

Above all, we have demoralised a significant proportion of the population by ideological non-judgmentalism. “Once these services [the provision of subsistence to the poor] move beyond the realms of state provision,” said a recent article in The Guardian, “there are potential problems – they lose neutrality… It becomes charity rather than basic state support, and for many this brings a degree of unease.”

In other words, living completely at the expense of others should not give rise to a sense of unease; it should be perfectly normal to do so, and even, perhaps, the appreciation that one is living at the expense of others should be disguised from one for the sake of one’s self-esteem; and that nothing by way of conduct should be demanded in return for such public assistance, not even the requirement that one keeps appointments at social security offices. (There has been much moral exhibitionism over the withdrawal of benefits from those who have failed to keep appointments, as if it were not only cold-heartedly bureaucratic to do so, which it almost certainly is in many cases, but inherently unjust.)

There could be no better way of promoting personal incompetence in daily affairs and social pathology on a mass scale than to require nothing in return for payments. To treat thrift, prudence, honesty and genuine misfortune no differently from improvidence, licence, dishonesty and misfortunes that are their natural consequence is, in effect, to discriminate in favour of the latter.

It will mean that the deserving will not get the assistance they deserve because so much has been swallowed up by the undeserving. True compassion is thus incompatible with a refusal to make a judgment, though of course making judgments risks error. But a world deprived of consequences for acting wisely or foolishly is a world deprived of meaning. Even in the absence of a lack of money, such an attitude is capable of producing, and indeed has produced, widespread squalor.

The growth of food banks has produced outrage in what President Eisenhower might have called the Industrial-Charity Complex. Kate Green, now a Labour MP but formerly head of the Child Poverty Action Group, feels a burning anger about them.

She might have turned her attention more profitably to her former “charity”. Of its income of £2.393 million in 2011, it derived precisely £101,000 from voluntary contributions, the kind normally regarded as charitable. It made slightly more than £1 million from its propagandistic publications, £595,000 from bringing test cases and £388,000 from training.

That year it spent £1.544 million on staff costs (about £40,000 per employee), £681,000 on bringing test cases, £473,000 on training, and £470,000 on “information, research and campaigning”. It ran a deficit for the year of 21 per cent, but staff costs and numbers of employees remained the same as 2010, despite a large drop in income, while the highest-paid person was paid more than the year before.

Does this remind you of anything, my dear taxpayer? It helps to explain, surely, why we have expended untold billions on state benefits and have ended up with squalor, soup kitchens and a prosperous nomenklatura class.

    Ever For Health Copy Rights 2013