Hurrah, civil society is not dead! It warms one’s heart to know that there is still a great deal of compassion and get up and go amongst the British public. Just over six years ago an economic catastrophe of the kind not seen since the 1930’s sent us spiralling into a major recession. We are still suffering the consequences and will continue to do so for years to come. Unemployment rose, wages stagnated and a cost of living crisis struck; the poor struggled to pay bills and many found themselves unable to afford enough food for their families.
In response, various groups of empathetic people around the country got together by their own volition and decided to do something to help those in need. The aim was to provide the poor and needy with fresh food at the point of crisis. The food was provided by supermarkets and wholesalers and the food banks were set up purely through private charity, with not a single penny of public funding. They proved to be a resounding success and helped many people, thus they expanded across the nation and soon food supplies began to flood in from private individuals and businesses. Today, thousands of people are going to food banks and benefitting from the generosity and thoughtfulness of their fellow human beings. This is a national disgrace and a scandal according to left wing statists who have managed to shroud this great success story in political point scoring and negativity.
Ah, but they argue that a “rich” country like Britain should never have any need for food banks, that nobody in such an apparently rich country should ever struggle to afford food. They then use this notion, and the fact that the number of people using food banks has risen considerably, as an argument against austerity, and as a stick to beat the Tories with and prove that they are intent on starving poor people to death while they eat caviar from golden tea spoons and guffaw. Many even cite the issue as evidence that the whole capitalist system is fatally flawed and must be replaced. There a number of problems with these arguments.
First of all, calling Britain a “rich” country and pointing to its position in the economic league table as evidence that nobody should ever go hungry is a facile point to make. This country has a budget deficit of over 100 billion, a current account deficit of 70 billion and a national debt approaching 1.5 trillion (£1,500,000,000,000) that can never be paid back. The simple fact of the matter is that the United Kingdom plc. has gone bust.
There are however many wealthy individuals in this country (rather a different thing), but what do leftists want, to confiscate the property and money from the wealthy by force and hand them to the poor? Well, yes, many of them probably do. A few of them would probably rather like to put on their fresh-from-the-sweat- shop Guy Fawkes masks and string a few of the rich folk up before posing for selfies with Russell Brand. Revolution!
Imagine that, enacting such a redistribution process and marvelling at the subsequent exodus of people and wealth, the death of productivity and inevitable economic catastrophe- the food banks would not be able to cope with the queues formed. Those using food banks as an argument in their tedious theses that capitalism ought to be overthrown are wilfully ignoring the historical fact that shortages of food and goods are a permanent feature of centrally planned economies.
It is also important to realise that it is nonsense to believe that there were not many, many poor people struggling financially in previous decades, the economic crisis has simply exacerbated the problem. When I worked as a volunteer for a health and social care charity (mainly working with criminals and drug addicts) many clients sought referrals to food banks. The reasons that people use food banks are varied, around 1 in 5 cite low income and 1 in 6 cite benefit changes, beyond this the causes are wide ranging. There are social problems such as family break down, debt and crime that have been deeply engrained long before the current crisis, and glitches in the welfare bureaucracy are inevitable considering the sheer number of people on the books. The real shame is not that food banks exist at all, but that they haven’t existed for longer. The first one was set up in the year 2000 and was a success, due to this the initiative spread and many more opened. This fact rather discredits the argument that food banks are a symptom of coalition failure, unsurprisingly as more food banks appeared more people have made use of them.
So, what is the future for food poverty and food banks in Britain? The Archbishop has called for the state to get involved but this is exactly the wrong solution. Food banks have been a resounding success and far from being a “disgrace”, as the self righteous Jack Monroe has said, they are a victory for the voluntary sector and a great achievement for the industrious individuals running them. How would state funding, and a new government department, improve what is already working so well? It is baffling to cite the failures of state bureaucracy as one of the reasons people are left short and then argue for the nationalisation of food banks. It makes no sense to call for taxpayer funding when we are facing years of cuts in public spending to bring the nation’s finances under control. Government profligacy is a major factor in our current economic plight; we have to look different solutions.
For a start the left must stop politicising this issue and using it to further their ideological agenda. Food banks are not an argument against austerity, especially when that so-called austerity involves borrowing £2 billion a week just to cover government expenditure. Their moralising over food poverty becomes transparent when they avoid discussing the inflation of food prices caused by the Common Agricultural Policy (heaven forfend that they would criticise their beloved EU), or the heavy taxation (including lifestyle taxes) of the poor as previously mentioned by Simon Gibbs.
What we need is for the state to keep out of food banks. If politicians want to help they should encourage and help their constituents set up independent food banks in their communities. The real solution is to expand the initiative further, food banks should become a permanent fact of our national life and we should celebrate them. Lets have one in every town! Many supermarkets already have donation baskets; I want one in every supermarket across the country! The fund raising operation should be expanded to help cover the costs of start ups and operation. Other charities have donation boxes in shops, fund raisers in the street, why not the great charities feeding our hungry? The call for the state to swallow the sector into its bloated and creaking welfare state is misguided. The success of food banks have shown us that with a little stimulus from conscientious individuals civil society can spring to life. Rejoice that our society is one capable of great humanity and compassion, let’s harness that and encourage the voluntary sector to even greater successes.