In this excerpt from our new report Why End UK Hunger?, Donald Hirsch says it’s time to realign social security and food security.
The increase in hunger and food insecurity that has driven a dramatic rise in UK food bank usage over the past decade is widely recognised as a scandal in one of the world’s richest countries. The very existence of food banks has clearly silenced those who denied that ‘real’ poverty exists in the UK. Yet it also risks creating a focus on one aspect of the consequences of poverty, hunger, that could suggest a minimalist approach to tackling it. If we could ensure that no child went to bed with an empty stomach, we would not have ended child poverty. And when designing social safety nets, it is important both to ensure that nobody faces destitution and also to set our sights higher than this, to underpin a minimum living standard that avoids social exclusion, and ensures that everybody feels able to participate in society.
On both of these criteria, our social security system is failing in multiple ways. Some people are being deprived of any income at all for significant periods, either through benefit sanctions or through interruptions to benefits including when first claiming Universal Credit. Even for those getting their entitlements, there has been a gradual erosion of their value, caused by the benefits freeze and other cuts. For people of working age who are out of work, the benefits ‘safety net’ is barely worth its name, as its value relative to minimum needs continues to decline.
Here is a simple example to illustrate that point.
A single person aged over 25 is entitled to basic benefits of £72.10 a week, but this typically reduces to a disposable income of £64.25 once contributions to rent and council tax, caused by recent policies, are taken into account. That’s 10% less than in 2012, even though we’ve seen 13% inflation since that time.
Once you deduct utility bills, this £64 reduces to less than £44 a week in your pocket to last the week. According to our research on a Minimum Income Standard for the UK, the minimum weekly cost of food for a single person compatible with an acceptable living standard is £49.64. So disposable income on benefits is not even enough to meet a food budget, let alone the wide range of other things you need to buy, which add more than £100 more to disposable income requirements. Many of these are not optional, even in relation to nutrition: you need to spend money on transport just to get to the shops to buy the food, on clothing to look presentable when you get there, and on household goods that allow you to sit down, cook and eat what you have bought.
So our safety net is falling far short of paying even for a reasonable diet, let alone a decent life. In aiming for something better, it’s important to recognise that food does more than just keep you alive. Our food budgets are based not just on being able to fill yourself up, but also eating healthily, having some degree of choice over what you eat, and fulfilling some social requirements such as being able to have a simple meal out occasionally with friends, and having a celebratory meal on occasions such as Christmas. It is not just about survival, but living with dignity.
These perspectives come not just from an abstract view of social rights, but from what ordinary people participating in our research agree is a minimum requirement in the UK today. They are influenced in this by the many government messages about the importance of eating healthily, with benchmarks such as five fruit and vegetables a day ingrained in our national consciousness. Ironically, the same governments that have disseminated such messages have not seen fit to give the poorest members of society the resources needed to achieve an adequate, healthy diet. If there is one aspect of joined up government that could most benefit people’s well-being, it would be for officials from the Department of Health and Social Care to spend a bit more time talking to officials from the Department for Work and Pensions and the HM Treasury officials who approve benefit budgets about the evidence of what makes a healthy lifestyle, and what it costs to achieve it.
Professor Donald Hirsch, Director of the Centre for Research in Social Policy, Loughborough University