UK hunger: why is it rising and what can we do about it?

Posted by Krisnah Poinasamy Economic Justice Policy Adviser, UK Poverty Programmme

9th Jun 2014

Oxfam believes that no one should go hungry, let alone in the seventh richest country in the world. Yet in Britain one in five people live below the poverty line and life expectancy in some areas is lower than some developing countries. Krisnah Poinasamy, Economic Justice Policy Adviser for our UK programme, introduces a shocking new report on hunger in the UK.

Tonight's Dispatches (Channel 4, 7.35pm) will chart the harrowing rise of food poverty in Britain, following three families that are struggling to put food on their table. 

The documentary coincides with the release of Below the Breadline, a joint report by Oxfam, Church Action on Poverty and the Trussell Trust, which estimates that approximately 20 million meals were given out by the three main food aid charities last year. This represents a 54 percent increase on 2012/13.

Demand led growth

Our report highlights the experiences of women and men forced to turn to food banks when the social safety has failed them. People like Tracy, who has struggled to get permanent work, churning through low pay and no pay, and her disappointment at having to use a food bank. Last year, some 913,000 people were helped by the Trussell Trust alone. But the rising demand has also been met by a large number of independent food banks that do not record data. This means we can only conservatively estimate the extent of the problem.

Working alongside Church Action on Poverty and the Trussell Trust, Oxfam analysed the key reasons for the phenomenal rise in the need for emergency food aid. The evidence refutes assertions of supply led growth. Instead, our partners and the experiences of people in poverty suggest a growing demand for food from foodbanks because people have no other way of eating. 

As researchers for a recent DEFRA report noted'There is no evidence to support the claim that increased food aid provision is driving demand. All available evidence, both in the UK and internationally, points in the opposite direction. Put simply, there is more need and informal food aid providers are trying to help.'

So, what's causing the rising need?

Through our analysis, Oxfam and its partners have built a strong picture of the main drivers of increasing demand for emergency food. Social security sanctions emerge as a key factor (and one which was also highlighted in our 2013 research, Walking the Breadline).

1. The impact of social security reform

Social protection in the UK has seen a significant increase in the use of sanctions, depriving people of government support for a minimum of a month, and a maximum of three years. Evidence of the sanction regime's failure is apparent in the 58 percent of sanctions that were successfully challenged last year (and 87 percent in the three months to September 2013). In their place, voluntary sector food banks are plugging the gaps in the safety net.

Oxfam recently commissioned work by Landman Economics - due to be published this summer - which has shown that the sanctions regime has had no correlation with improved employment rates, its intended consequence. Instead, it has left people with no income and forced to turn to food banks.

In addition the localisation of hardship funds have meant people who should expect social security have had no income when there have been delays to their payments, no safety net at all when the unexpected happens and a huge bill comes through or a family member falls sick. With incomes for the poorest fifth falling by 11 percent over 2005-12, families are left having to survive on £18 a week less in real terms. Our recent work with NPI showed how recent welfare cuts have driven the poorest 1.75 million families deeper into poverty.

2. Lack of decent work

Having visited a foodbank in Birmingham, I've witnessed first-hand the feelings of embarrassment, but also appreciation, at food banks. In most cases people had previously had jobs - indeed our research has highlighted the growing number of people who are in work, yet still turning to food banks because their pay cannot cover a modest shopping list.

This comes as little surprise when the National Minimum Wage has not risen in real terms since 2009, and the number of people living below the Living Wage has risen 40 percent to 4.8 million in 2012. Without secure work, people have no secure income.

3. Rising cost of living

Together with rising living costs, the impact of social security reform and a lack of decent work means that people are having to make their budgets stretch ever further.

UK households, on average, are buying less food yet spending more money, and in 2012 purchased 4.7 percent less food while spending 17 percent more money than in 2007. Yet those in the bottom income decile spent 22 percent more on food and bought 5.7 percent less over the same period. The rise in the use of food banks suggests many budgets have reached breaking point.

Will the tide turn?

The number of people living in poverty rose in real terms by 900,000 over the year 2011/12. Based on last year's rise in the use of food banks and our knowledge of the cumulative impact of social security reforms, it is reasonable to expect a further rise in poverty - confirming the predictions of the IFS in 2011. The government's poverty figures for 2012/13 are due on July 1st and will be covered here.

In order to turn this tide, Oxfam calls for the government to urgently respond to the evidence we have presented here and take action on the causes of food bank usage. Re-instating the social safety net principle as a core purpose of the welfare system would help to end the appalling situation documented in our report tonight's Dispatches, and ensure that all families can put food on their table.

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Blog post written by Krisnah Poinasamy

Economic Justice Policy Adviser, UK Poverty Programmme

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