As the economic impact of the second lockdown across England wreaks more havoc on the livelihoods of millions of our fellow citizens, Feeding Britain and the Independent Food Aid Network recently released a joint briefing based on evidence gathered from across their networks. First-hand testimonies from frontline food bank managers and volunteers painted a bleak picture of the six months after COVID-19 that must serve as a desperate warning that worse is still to come despite the Chancellor’s last-minute intervention on the furlough scheme and the DWP’s £170 Covid Winter Grant Scheme.
Poverty-induced hunger has impacted groups of any age, culture or background while families with children, ethnic minorities, working households and people with no access to public funding for support fared the worst. For millions of people already living with poverty and short of food before the pandemic hit, their situation has only got worse. Jen Coleman of Black Country Food Bank said ‘COVID-19 has put a spotlight on the extreme problems people have been putting up with a for a long time.’ And EATS Rosyth told us about meeting an increase in need from ‘people already experiencing long-term issues with their income and benefits, further compounded by being unable to access support services or people becoming isolated from their social networks.’
While a growing cohort of people have needed to use a food bank for the first time – as Jen Coleman of the Black Country Food Bank put it – ‘having to seek help from a food bank is the most soul-destroying experience someone can go through.' Our members reported people needing support who had ‘never claimed benefits before now needing help navigating the systems and managing on reduced incomes.’ Dee Woods of the Granville Community Kitchen told us how people having been made redundant were ‘the fastest growing group at an alarming rate.’ Most notably the self-employed have been impacted. While Alison Grainger of Hambleton FoodShare was struck by the ‘number of furloughed staff who were looking for help…80% of not very much from a low-paid job doesn’t stretch too far.’
While the numbers of people forced to seek the help of a food bank have grown enormously and our contributing food banks have seen increases in need of more than 700%, Ed Hodson of Coventry Citizens’ Advice explained: ‘the actual drivers have remained largely the same’. The crisis has only further demonstrated the fragility of zero-hour contracts – Sufra in West London reported ‘many guests who are on precarious zero-hour contracts have lost their jobs due to the pandemic and didn’t have access to the furlough scheme.’ The cost of living surpassing many people’s incomes or benefit payments has been exacerbated by increased costs as a result of the pandemic – transport has been restricted, local convenience stores are expensive, broadband for children has been necessary for online learning, masks have needed to be purchased and utility bills have increased as people were mandated to stay at home. While Alison Peyton of Readifood pointed to the increase in the number of families needing help because of domestic violence.
And as Ed Hodson says, people already living in poverty have ‘fallen to the bottom of the queue’ in terms of resolving ‘benefit issues’ and these benefit issues – particularly the time and complexity associated with starting a new Universal Credit claim, as well as the loans, known as ‘advance payments’, taken out to bridge the five-week wait for a first payment – have hit the newly impacted hard. Mary Collier of Reaching People told us: ‘deductions being made for repayment of advance payments has a further very significant impact on the already very low benefit income that people are expected to live on.’ Many people who have lost income through employment have found themselves excluded from the Universal Credit system because they have savings of one kind or another.
Far too many self-employed workers have found themselves excluded from the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) by design – in particular those who were new to being self-employed and unable to provide records of business activity for a sufficient period. Among this group was a lone parent in the Hambleton district who was due to open a business in April, had bought stock and immediately had to close down. The Chancellor has made a welcome concession to the self-employed in increasing the percentage of the trading profits that can be claimed and bringing forward the application date to the 30th of November but there are still too many gaps in this part of the safety net. And as ever those excluded from the scheme like the recently self-employed have been left in the cold (quite literally in the case of those having to choose between heating and eating). And the Chancellor’s last-minute furlough extension, hugely welcome as it is, has come too late for a whole group of newly redundant people navigating the Universal Credit system as Christmas approaches.
The dangers of institutionalising emergency food aid present in the £170 million allocation to local authorities in England are clear. Local authorities will be able to spend the money as they see fit, which means if they haven’t a local welfare assistance scheme in place it will be challenging to instigate cash payments directly to families and individuals even if they’d like to prioritise a cash first approach. Following a decade of cuts to the social security system, the significance of cash grants distributed by local authorities has become a vital line of defence against destitution. As our contributors made clear, whenever households are exposed to hunger it tends to be sufficient money in people’s pockets that’s missing.
The deeper poverty driving the need for charitable food aid prompted the ten critical recommendations outlined in our report. At the very least, we’re calling for £20 uplift to Universal Credit to be made permanent and extended to legacy benefits such as Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment & Support Allowance but we’d like to see that the key drivers of poverty are being addressed with a view to ending the need for food banks rather than normalising their existence further.