“Inequality is down” is a refrain that’s used a lot these days. It’s one Theresa May wheeled out at the last PMQs before summer recess on Wednesday, and it’s one that Tories keep repeating as if we might believe. But if inequality is down in the official statistics, why are more people having to depend on food banks to ensure they don’t go hungry?
According to the Trussell Trust, who have 428 food banks across the UK, the average family who uses their services comes twice a year. Their figures show that 27 per cent of London recipients visited a food bank due to benefit delays, and a further 25 per cent of people were referred because they were “struggling to get by” on low wages or benefits cuts. The charity said a “small crisis”, such as a boiler breaking down or needing to buy a school uniform, usually is enough to drive a family to food desperation.
I took a visit to a food bank in Brent to discover the reality.
I spoke to a man aged 29 who described his local food bank as a “safety blanket” – it was reassurance that, when he had no way of obtaining food, they would provide it.
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“The Government is failing me, the poor people, the under average people, [we’re] the ones who are losing out most at the moment,” he said. “At first I was a bit embarrassed, but after that, the staff were great and everyone’s using it so there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
“It seems to be getting more difficult to get the vouchers; it’s not as easy as it should be. Your benefits have to be cut completely to get food. I’ve gone many times this year two days in a row without eating. Work’s hard to get so it makes me feel like a failure.”
This week at PMQs, Theresa May said, “The best route out of poverty is for people to get into the workplace and then for us to ensure that other, better paid jobs are provided for people in the workplace in the future.”
The harsh reality of the situation, however, as described by our 29-year-old food bank user, was that “sometimes you’re worse off” when you’re in employment because of the rock-bottom wages and the inability to access food banks to offset them as easily.
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He told me about a conversation he had with a lady who said the Job Centre told her to make calls to different places but didn’t consider that she couldn’t afford phone credit if she didn’t have money for food to begin with. These are the kinds of difficulties Theresa May doesn’t seem to think about when she suggests that people in poverty just magically “find themselves” a job.
Brent food bank manager Michele Lawrence told me about one woman who had to lie to her children and say she ate whilst they were at school. In reality she was living on sugar and water. When Michele met her, she smelled so strongly of sugar that people in the room were asked to go through their groceries and check if a bag of sugar had broken.
Michele revealed to me that she has seen a drastic increase in the number of people walking through the door and that food banks are really struggling with financial aid: “We have a benefits system that most people think works but it doesn’t. Since January to April this year we saw a 61 per cent increase in take up. Last year we fed 2,000 people; this year it was over 3,500, and it’s all down to benefits, benefit caps, Universal Credit.
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“We have people coming to the food bank for the first time because of benefit cuts and they muscle up the courage to come but they cannot bring themselves to come inside so we have someone standing outside for an hour just pacing.”
These are the people the Government must take responsibility for, rather than touting statistics which have become all but meaningless in a country where this is the reality. Large groups of people being forced to choose between heating, food and home repairs is not something to be proud of. This is a crisis of inequality which cannot be solved by shouting over it that “our numbers show inequality is down”.