I recently visited a foodbank at the invitation of the Trussell Trust, the admirable charity which runs the UK’s largest network of emergency centres providing food to people in crisis. The jump in the use of foodbanks is partly a warning sign of problems (especially delays in the payment of benefits) that are not being picked up in official data. However, the UK is also catching up with other rich countries where foodbanks are already a common way to help those in need. I therefore wanted to explore whether private foodbanks are simply delivering welfare more effectively than the state.

First, the statistics. The Trussell Trust now supports more than 400 foodbanks around the UK. In the fiscal year 2016-17, the network distributed 1,182,954 food parcels, up from 1,109,309 in 2015-16 and only 40,898 in 2009-10.

These data need to be interpreted with care. The Trussell Trust does not publish estimates of the total number of people visiting foodbanks. However, someone using a Trussell Trust foodbank needs, on average, two parcels per year. This implies that around 600,000 people were helped in this way in 2016-17.

What’s more, the Trussell Trust is not the only organisation running foodbanks. Information on the rest of the sector is patchy, but it has been estimated that there are over 800 foodbanks in the UK altogether. On the one hand, this suggests that the total number of people using a foodbank each year is likely to be more than a million.

On the other, the Trussell Trust data alone surely overstate the growth of the sector as a whole. Presumably some of the increase in the number of people helped by the Trussell Trust will be due to the replacement of existing foodbanks or similar local initiatives, such as soup kitchens, rather than an indication of a surge in overall demand.

The Trust is certainly active in many more regions. For example, in 2009 it operated in only 29 UK local authority areas. By 2013 this figure had jumped to 251. These new areas had presumably experienced food poverty before. To some extent, then, the increased use of Trussell Trust foodbanks is simply due to an expansion in their geographic coverage.

The awareness of foodbanks is also now greater. This factor could have increased both demand and supply. For example, shoppers at leading supermarket chains are now able to donate food and other essentials for foodbanks to pass on to those in need.

Finally, it could be argued that the UK is simply catching up with other countries. A 2014 review found that there were around 800 foodbanks in Canada, serving 850,000 people every month; 1,000 foodbanks in Germany, helping at least 1.5 million people; and 2,000 in France, where 3.5 million people receive some sort of food assistance. And in the US, more than 43 million Americans each year are supported by a network of foodbanks under the umbrella of ‘Feeding America’.

Nonetheless, it would be misleading to claim that increased use of foodbanks in the UK is solely due to their increased availability. Jacob Rees-Mogg was plain wrong to suggest that only reason for the rise was ‘that people know that they are there’. Increased referrals from Job Centres, in particular, only account for a small part of demand.

It is also a myth that people can simply turn up at a foodbank and walk away with free food. In the case of the Trussell Trust, professionals in the local community (such as doctors, health visitors or social workers) identify people in need and issue them with a voucher for three days’ food. No voucher, no food. What’s more, there is still plenty of stigma attached to visiting a foodbank. Indeed, many vouchers are never actually redeemed. And there is evidence of unmet demand: four in five users of a Trussell Trust foodbank reportedly go hungry multiple times per year.

That said, the greater use of foodbanks is hard to square with the official data on household incomes (which poverty campaigners themselves often cite). These are measures of inequality, rather than what most people would understand as poverty, and are so broad as to be almost meaningless. But for what they are worth, these data show that the number of people in relative ‘poverty’ (those earning less than 60% of median incomes) has risen only slightly, from 13.6 million in 2009-10 to 14.0 million in 2015-16 (the latest comparable figures). This covers the period of most rapid expansion in foodbank use.

More importantly, the number in absolute ‘poverty’ (those earning below 60% of 2010/11 median incomes) actually fell slightly over this period, from 13.1 million to 12.8 million. These are the people presumably at more risk of needing to use a foodbank.

So, what’s going on? Fortunately, a comprehensive study of Trussell Trust users by Oxford University provides clear answers. Another Tory MP, Dominic Raab, may have spoken clumsily when he said that a typical food bank user is ‘someone who has a cashflow problem episodically’, but he wasn’t so far off the mark. Similarly, the Prime Minister was at least half right when she said that there are ‘many complex reasons why people go to food banks’.

However, there is a recurring theme: the people using food banks are typically from groups that have been most affected by recent welfare reforms, notably those with disabilities, single parents, and large family households. In particular, foodbanks have reported a significant increase in demand in those areas where Universal Credit has already been rolled out. These are problems not being picked up in the broader measures of ‘poverty’ based solely on income inequality.

In effect, then, food banks are acting as a stop-gap where government has failed. Jacob Rees-Mogg was at least surely correct that the voluntary support given to food banks is ‘rather uplifting’. It is impossible not to be impressed by the Trussell Trust and the dedication of its staff and volunteers.

Indeed, the Trust appears to be delivering a much better service than many government agencies, with some truly joined-up thinking. For example, the ‘More Than Food’ initiative provides access to many other forms of help, notably support for people with mental health problems.

Nonetheless, I’m sure that the Trussell Trust would be the first to baulk at the idea that we should just pat them on the back and walk away. For a start, the increased use of foodbanks is an early warning of serious problems in the timing of benefit payments. There are also widespread examples of maladministration, which are causing delays, poverty and hunger. Many organisations, including Citizens Advice, have called for the rollout of Universal Credit to be paused, or at least the fallout minimised by shorter waits for payment and more generous advance payments.

It would surely be better to fix those problems at source, rather than rely on charities to pick up the pieces. Presumably the government would not be willing to stand up today and admit that this is what is happening. Reforms to the benefit system are at least part of the solution.

However, a true free market approach would place the most emphasis on addressing problems caused by state intervention, rather than advocating even more. Re-privatising welfare may be a step too far for many. But the government could actually help the poor by getting out of the way in many other areas, from liberalising planning laws to ease the housing crisis, to using Brexit to lower food bills. Similar scope for cutting the cost of basic essentials exists in the energy sector and the childcare sector. This would reduce the need both for state benefits and for foodbanks to fill the gap. In the meantime, though, the Trussell Trust is a cause well worth supporting.

 

Recommended reading: ‘Redefining the poverty debate. Why a war on markets is no substitute for a war on poverty‘ by Kristian Niemietz.

Julian Jessop is Chief Economist at the IEA. He has thirty years of experience as a professional economist in the public and private sectors, including senior positions at HM Treasury, HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank. Prior to joining the IEA in March he was a Director and Chief Global Economist at the leading independent consultancy, Capital Economics. Julian has a First Class degree in economics from Cambridge University and post-graduate qualifications in both economics and law.

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