My Mum is part of a Fellowship Group attached to her church. Each week, they meet up to eat cake and to discuss aspects of faith and the bible. Their church has decided to set up a food bank for local people in need and this came up in the conversation.
The Group Leader was very sceptical about the idea. She cited anecdata about people on benefits wasting their money on cigarettes and fripperies and opined that others would merely take advantage of the goods on offer. She thought that the potential recipients should be means-tested and vetted.
To the sighs of relief of the other members, my Mum spoke up and said that vetting was a bad idea. They wanted people to come for help without any fear of judgement. Putting up further barriers to access was very much against the ethos of the project. She bit back adding that if someone really got their kicks from conning the church out of a couple of bags of pasta and a can of hot dogs, then they were welcome to them; they had bigger problems.
Nobody wants to go to a food bank. Nobody wants to think of themselves as needing help. However, if there is a way of helping out, we should do it. If there is help available, people should be encouraged to take it. Maybe one day they could pay it forward.
She ended her small homily as the Leader tutted into her tea and home made gingerbread and the conversation changed.
Welcome to the United Kingdom in 2014.
Benefits Britain is high on the political agenda as the government tries to cut expenditure to the bone and beyond. Television is full of it, from Saints and Scroungers, which contrasts benefits fraudsters with deserving cases, to Benefits Street, a paean to the hopeless and anti-social. The papers exult in stories of fraud, shiftlessness and outrageousness which are costing the taxpayers money. Woman with 14 children? Step on up! Man pretending to be crippled caught coaching football? Come, join us! Better still if one of these people can be interviewed boasting about how easy it is to screw money from the government. Reagan's welfare queen apparently stalks the land like a parasitic spectre.
Welcome to the United Kingdom in 1814.
The deserving and undeserving poor are, apparently, among us.
The undeserving poor are much meatier subjects to discuss, feckless, criminal, a drain on society. Take away their enormous TVs and cars and send them to the work house.
The deserving poor are an angelic and ethereal throng, wheelchair bound war heroes who never complain.
Nobody wants to be mistaken for either group nor yet to assess themselves as being anywhere between the two poles. There is a stigma there, reinforced by what we are all being told again and again.
Is it better to starve than risk shame? Is there another way?
Two of the fundamental requirements of life are shelter and food. Many people can afford neither sufficiently. Food poverty is a real phenomenon for a myriad reasons.
The Trussell Trust has been in the news a lot recently. Among other projects, they set up food banks and reported that they had given out 51% more parcels in 2013 than in 2012. Food banks are now very much a political football. How can a rich First World country be said to be running at all properly if people are going hungry?
Some of our politicians and media argue that people are not hungry and if they are, it's their own fault. Edwina Currie argued that most people don't bother to save for a rainy day and that there is an underclass that blows their cash on dog food and tattoos just prior to pleading poverty. In her opinion, food banks enable this behaviour further.
Lord Freud, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, declared that '...food from a food bank is by definition a free good and there’s almost infinite demand ...' and therefore that the increase in the number of food banks accounted for the increase in the numbers of users
Paul Maynard argued that food banks were habit-forming and diminished people's sense of personal responsibility.
Iain Duncan-Smith was most vitriolic of all, accusing The Trussell Trust of scaremongering and having a political agenda, despite their stance of neutrality. And so on and so forth. So much sophistry on account of politics as a criticism of the government and its welfare policies may be seen to be implied.
Down with politics, if it makes people deny what is going on in front of their noses for doctrinaire reasons. Down with politics if it makes people feel obliged to insult those who are seeking assistance.
Food banks and other such schemes are a lifeline to those who may otherwise fall into the cracks. There are those who are too proud or have been shamed out of claiming benefits. There are those who are ineligible for benefits, such as students. There are those on zero hours contracts and the minimum wage whose income varies and seldom stretches far enough. There are those under welfare sanctions or in the midst of benefits appeals and applications or whose benefits have been cut. The Trussell Trust, by citing such examples, has enraged many in the government. This doesn't take the problem away.
This weekend, The Daily Mail ran an article about how easy it was to get vouchers for food banks. To them, the system was laughably unpoliced and a bonanza to freeloaders. They had the grace to return the free food to the food bank, but appear to feel that they may play judge and jury as to who is in need and who not. How humane.
One reaction to this was a huge leap in donations to The Trussell Trust, many citing the Mail article's misanthropy as the impetus. My fear is that food banks et al have been tarnished with stigma further – it's where the scumbags go – thereby diminishing their use and support even where there is a need. People tend to believe the negative for longer.
See how it percolated down into a church group for chrissakes.