By: Alex Heffron —
Food banks have stepped up to the plate in the austerity years, and throughout the corona-crisis they are proving to be more necessary than ever with queues for emergency food parcels increasing by the week. In March, the Trussell Trust, one of many UK food bank charities, experienced an 81% increase in demand.
It’s an example of the human impulse to provide mutual aid to others in need, a reminder of our essential sense of social solidarity and compassion. However, whilst it’s important that we support food banks right now, during this time of crisis, they cannot be seen as a long term solution to the problem of food insecurity.
It is deeply inhumane and unjust, in a world of abundant food, that so many people can go without food.
Their plight is symptomatic of a broken society. Yet the austerity years have seen a normalisation of food banks within British society.
Worldwide, 2 billion people go hungry and struggle for the sustenance required for their survival. In the UK, more than 1.5 million people needed an emergency food parcel in 2018-19 from the Trussell Trust alone, with that number set to reach record heights in 2020. Approximately 14.4 million households across the UK could not afford to spend enough money to meet the government’s Eatwell Guide’s recommended diet.
In Wales in 2017, 35% of people aged 16-34 said they had worried their food would run out, and 14% of people had experienced running out of food before they could afford more. This is a dire and unacceptable situation for what is supposed to be the world’s sixth largest economy. Society isn’t working if a large percentage face hunger.
Sue Pritchard, the chief executive of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission and based in South Wales, said, “The pandemic has exposed the faultlines in our food system”.
The coronavirus pandemic didn’t create these problems but it has exacerbated them, and exposed more people to a punitive system that punishes those that fall into financial hardship.
The claimant count in the UK has surged to more than 2,000,000 people amidst the corona-crisis (there is no reason to believe that this is the ceiling). We will see many more people lose their jobs over the remaining period of the pandemic and its aftermath shocks.
From reading the reports of many excellent think-tanks and food organisations, they all seem to be shying away from the real underlying cause of the problem. They suggest increasing the availability of food vouchers; there’s talk of ‘what gets measured gets mended’, but in reality is that true? Measurement is important, but we mustn’t assume change automatically happens as a result. Just look at the UN’s approach to global hunger figures – if you don’t like the data, move the goalposts. Positive change would assume a rational state that is interested in the health and wellbeing of its citizens; in reality we’re more concerned with entrenching elite power and wealth leading to further inequality.
We know that rough sleeping and homelessness are a problem; we know the numbers, but still they do nothing about it (except during a pandemic). We know there isn’t enough social housing, yet still they don’t build it. We know how many parts per million of carbon dioxide exists in the atmosphere, yet still they delay on taking action.
Have we become obsessed with measuring problems as a way to avoid tackling them? Is it because we’ve become publicly reticent about naming the elephant in the room: namely capitalism? The reason the climate is being trashed is for private profit; the reason people live rough on the streets is because property is an aggressively protected investment asset; the reason families go to bed hungry at night is because of economic inequality and the extortionate cost of living compared to income. We don’t need more reports to know this. How do we solve these problems? We address the toxicity of the profit motive and its inability to adequately provide for everyone’s basic needs.
Ultimately, to address the issue of food insecurity we must address the underlying causes of poverty. As Emma Revie, Chief Executive of The Trussell Trust, said to MPs,
“The problem is financial hardship. The answer to financial hardship is not food.” She said it would be impossible for food banks to continually meet an unprecedented level in demand for their services.
When a family on Universal Credit is left with £50 a week to live on, then it’s no wonder that families have to choose between eating, or heating the house. As Anthony Painter, of the RSA, said, “Minor adjustments to Universal Credit hardly seem adequate to the task.”
And as End Hunger UK states, “Food poverty requires a long term, sustainable solution that addresses the policy issues under focus: low income, under/unemployment, rising food prices and welfare reform, informed by routine, government-supported monitoring and reporting of the extent of food poverty among our citizens.”
Eventually we must radically overhaul our current political and economic system in the way that Undod is working towards in an independent Wales.
Universal Basic Income (UBI)
Food insecurity, we can see, is ‘closely tied to inadequacy of household income and demands on household financial resources.’
The Trussell Trust’s Chief Executive Emma Revie said, “What we are seeing year-upon-year is more and more people struggling to eat because they simply cannot afford food. This is not right.”
So the predominant cause is quite straightforward: a lack of money. Addressing this via benefits, food vouchers, free school-meals and the like is a complex, imperfect response that leaves too many gaps – particularly since austerity. Despite years of trying these tactics, there are ever more people relying upon emergency food parcels.
To be sure there are other aspects that must be considered such as a lack of means to cook a meal. In a bedsit you might not have access to a fridge or a stove, so clearly there must be investment in more social housing, along with reforms to the private rented sector, or better yet, the socialisation of housing, to end its use as investment class for rentier class.
The implementation of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) would help provide the economic means for basic needs such as housing, food and utilities – given that these are largely provided for by the private sector currently. This would be in addition to payments for those with increased needs such as disability payments, child support benefit (and we should scrap the two child limit), and unemployment benefit.
When Wales entered the Covid-19 pandemic, we were already in a precarious situation, but throughout and post-pandemic, the precarity will increase to previously unseen levels post-1945. Quite simply, many people will not be able to find a job, and those who are lucky to find a new job post-pandemic may have to take a job that paid less than their previous one. Therefore, there will be more people struggling to make ends meet, and put food on the table in the coming decade, if we don’t come up with a radically different alternative to the current paradigm of tackling food poverty. This will put further pressure on a health system that will be reeling from the effects of a decade of cuts, combined with the ripple effects from a crippling virus.
A nutrition professor in Canada, Valerie Tarsuk, is calling on the Canadian government to implement UBI for this reason. Access to healthy food should not be left to the market; it’s a basic human right and a matter of public health. We should not simply gloss over this inhumanity any longer. Food poverty and insecurity is a global problem for a reason: global capitalism.
UBI recognises that our ability to feed and house ourselves mustn’t be dependent on our labour value (in a world that has a distorted view of value), or our access to employment.
In a future where many more jobs will be replaced by automation, decoupling our value as a citizen from our labour will be increasingly important. UBI can free people to do work that matters to them, support us to care for each other, and start the long process of the redistribution of wealth, so badly needed in a world where a tiny percentage own the vast majority of money via unearned-wealth.
Undod called for UBI as an emergency measure to help deal with the effects of Covid. As Tegid Roberts sets out in his piece for Nation.Cymru, we could use the corona-crisis as a chance to trial UBI in the real-world. Roberts calculates that £500 per person of working age, of which there are 1.9 million people in Wales, would cost £950 million per month. To run the experiment for 12 months would cost Wales approximately 16% of its GDP. Or to put it another way, Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO and founder, could afford to pay this for more than 150 years out of his own net worth alone. Bezos, however, is unlikely to do so.
There is, however, an argument that any UBI implemented must be considered sufficient. The Bevan Foundation are suggesting an amount of £213 per week, based on research by the Fraser of Allander Institute in Scotland. Their research suggests it would reduce poverty by 25 percentage points, and child poverty by 17 percentage points. A UBI at this amount would represent double what a single person over the age of 25 would expect to receive from Universal Credit.
As Anthony Painter of the RSA highlights, “[UBI] benefits most but benefits those on low incomes the greatest.”
The UBI should be funded by a progressive taxation system that seeks to tax the wealthiest to help address growing inequality.
Another suggestion is that we could fund a UBI via a negative income tax, which is something Wales currently has the powers to do within the devolution settlement. Tegid Roberts has explored how a progressive income tax system could achieve this in Wales.
Right now, it could be kickstarted by ‘people’s quantitative easing’ (money printing given directly to people rather than as debt via banks) to help stimulate the economy post-covid – big businesses are already being bailed out by Westminster in this manner. What better way to finally learn the lesson of the financial crash of 2008, and give that money directly to people? Rather than use economically and socially destructive austerity measures.
UBI can be used as part of a transition strategy away from a rent-seeking economy, towards a fair and sustainable one that values socially-responsible behaviour.
Critics of UBI say that it isn’t a cure-all, and that the political willpower spent on achieving it might be better spent on improving public services towards an approach called Universal Basic Services (UBS). They say that a UBI will not address the underlying structural problems causing poverty. They’re right, of course, but are UBS and UBI mutually exclusive? And even if a UBI doesn’t address the underlying causes, that doesn’t make it any less beneficial. When people are going hungry the first thing to do is make sure they can afford enough food. After that root causes can be considered and revolutions countenanced.
Can we not improve public services and implement a UBI? Critics argue that the capitalist class will never agree to it, but should that detract us from trying within the context of Wales? We must be careful not to allow our Overton window to be defined too narrowly and miss the chance for more radical change instead of reformist nudges. Perhaps the ‘corona-crisis’ gives us an expedited opportunity to implement a UBI? If not now then when?
Neither UBS nor UBI should be considered a silver bullet. We need better public infrastructure, better public services and we need enough cash to be able to buy the basics we require for a decent, human life, within the context of a heavily privatised society. Even if UBI isn’t perfect, it is surely worth a try?
Another valid argument against UBI is that the money may end up in the hands of rentiers. Specific to the corona-crisis the UBI must be combined with a cancellation of rental debt (or at least a debt ‘haircut’ owed to rentiers), or the money will just end up in the hands of the private rented sector, with the Institute for Public Policy Research estimating that 45% of the net cost of the Job Retention Scheme will be paid to rent, mortgage and other debt payments. The IPPR also set out other recommendations that aim to take pressure off those with high debts relative to income. Of course, neither Labour nor Conservatives have shown any appetite to take on the rentiers. Labour’s Shadow Housing Secretary, Thangam Debbonaire, even called rent cancellation ‘really regressive’ and ‘un-Labour’. Going forward we should be looking at serious rent controls, or even better to abolish rentierism in the property market and ensure affordable housing for all. One reason people don’t have enough money to put food on the table is that they pay too much rent. Rental income is the epitome of un-earned wealth.
Tackling food insecurity, along with systemic changes to the food system that would support a wider adoption of a healthy diet, could also have the welcome side-effect of helping to address the health issues associated with it. Healthy food is expensive food, as the cost of the Eatwell guide shows.
The Food Ethics Council recently held a debate on Universal Basic Income for the food system and their jury judged that it was a ‘powerful idea with the potential to deliver significant net benefits to our food systems and society.’ They judged it to have ‘potential to make a major contribution to addressing household food insecurity.’
The causes of food poverty are said to be complex, but in reality, it’s fairly straightforward, at least in our current society. It’s mostly about having enough money to buy a ‘socially and culturally acceptable healthy diet,’ according to the Food Poverty Alliance Wales.
An emergency UBI for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic would allow us to gather real-world data on whether it’s an effective mechanism for eradicating, not just mitigating, food poverty in Wales. In a world where wealth is increasingly monopolised by the top 10%, UBI offers a chance to move towards a fairer world where people can afford the basics. That seems the least we should aim for. Papering over the cracks in a depleted welfare system will not be sufficient to meet the challenge we face. It’s inhumane to let the crime of food poverty continue any longer. It’s time to try a different approach.