How food banks trump the welfare state

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On the face of it, the figures are damning. Food banks in Britain helped over 900,000 people last year, up around a third over the year before. It seems Britain has a real problem with food poverty. Our benefits system just isn’t coping. But, like so many media headlines, the truth is a lot more subtle. Nearly all food banks in Britain are run by a single Christian charity, the Trussell Trust. In the last few years it has found a niche, sharpened its act, and opened a lot more. So not surprisingly, care professionals have been sending more people along. It may not be that the underlying problem is getting worse, just that it is being better served.

Nor is it the government’s benefit reforms that explain the rise. Food banks were growing long before the measures were passed in 2013, and many of the reforms have not even been implemented yet. And by merging scores of benefits into a far simpler universal benefit, the reforms should hopefully help ensure that people do not in fact fall through the gaps in the over-complicated welfare net.

The underlying problem that food banks help solve is not food poverty, any more than it is shoe poverty, clothes poverty, electricity poverty or water poverty. It is the temporary crises that people sometimes get into when they are unemployed or on low pay. Around 60% of food bank users are once-only users. They hit a crisis and can’t afford the groceries; that is why care workers refer them.

Around 30% of them have problems because their benefits payment has not arrived in time, or they are being penalised for not showing up at interview, or they have simply filled in a form wrongly. And you can blame that on our over-complicated, bureaucratic, distant and unfeeling state benefits system. We spend £94bn a year on it, a seventh of all government spending (and the government spends a lot). If we devolved the process to local communities and voluntary groups, it would work much better.

No government can do much about the fact that food prices have risen nearly 35% since 2007. Well, actually, they could stop subsidising biofuels, which has diverted huge amounts of agricultural produce out of human mouths and into gasoline tanks. And they could do something about the fact that other essentials have been soaring in price too. Government-mandated to renewable energy adds about 15% to the fuel bills of businesses and private sector organisations, plus about 6% on the gas bills and 11% on the electricity bills of domestic customers. That is why poorer people run out of cash and economise by going hungry.

Nearly everyone in Britain is well fed – some too much so – because Britain is a peaceful, trading nation with an established rule of law. Our farmers are not afraid to plant crops in case they are stolen by thugs or invading armies. Our traders bring produce to us from all over the world. If you want to see chronic poverty, look at countries that do not have this thriving market system.

Because this market system makes us a rich country, we can afford to help people who run into problems. The biggest philanthropic sector on the planet is that of America, the world’s richest country. In fact, America, Canada, New Zealand all have large food bank movements. That is because they are rich, and because they have a strong sense of community too. In Britain, too much of that sense of community has been crowded out by our state bureaucracy.

It is actually good to see charities taking on these problems. The state is inevitably large and lumbering. Private charities are much better at tackling individual human issues, like families who run out of cash from time to time.

Of course, the state could help in a very simple way. A large number of people referred to food banks are actually not those on benefits, but people on minimum wages. The government has pledged to take everyone on minimum wage out of tax, and about time too – it is absurd to tax people who are on the breadline. And yet we are still charging them and their employers another, hidden tax, namely National Insurance Contributions. Again, it’s crazy. If you want to help people in poverty­–and get people into the world’s best welfare programme, namely a paying job–you should be making work pay, which for many of the nation’s poorest, is appallingly not the case.