In austerity Britain, as in most of the developed world, the Government is struggling to balance the books – and, as is usually the case in such circumstances, it is the poor that are facing the most hardship as a result.
Remarkably over twenty percent of the UK’s population is considered to be living in poverty: more than 13 million people, including over 3 million children. Most projections suggest this figure will increase further over the coming years.
Of course how you define poverty matters – discussions of poverty in the UK and other developed countries tend to consider relative poverty, the level of inequality across society, rather than absolute levels of material deprivation or hardship. The current most widely used UK definition of poverty is a household income below 60% of national median income, ie: below £13,000 a year, or around £250 a week (varied depending on family size). It’s not hard to see how household income levels much below this figure can place the family under continual financial stress and uncertainty and contribute to social exclusion – preventing the family from engaging in things like travelling to see more distant relatives, attending children’s activities like swimming or sports, or taking holidays, trips and occasional meals out.
Inequality and social exclusion are certainly important issues, but focusing on issues of relative poverty alone can obscure something else even more important – the existence of more extreme levels of poverty and hardship.
Absolute poverty is typically defined as an inability to meet basic human needs such as shelter, warmth, food, health and education, and while precise definitions vary, in the UK the typically used household income figure of £216 a week is used as a threshold for a more absolute level of poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimate around 8.4 million people in the UK are in this position.
This can mean living in unfit housing badly affected by damp and mold, lack of sufficient heating, a shortage of basic clothing, no access to transport, and increasingly severely restricted access to food.
A family living hand to mouth has little ability to plan and save for the future, and when something goes wrong such as the car needed to travel to work needs fixing, or the heating boiler breaks and needs repair, or the main breadwinner is unable to work due to injury or illness, then food is often the thing that suffers.
The growth of foodbanks across the country is a testament to people’s concern, compassion and solidarity for those most in need within their own communities. Last year UK, foodbanks fed over a quarter of a million people.
The basic idea of a foodbank is that it collects and stores tinned and packet food donated by individuals, and then works with the various professional agencies like schools, GPs, social services and Job Centers etc, so that people and families considered to be facing substantial hardship, can be referred to the foodbank to receive a few days worth of food, to help tide them over any period of crisis. The aim is not to provide long term support, but just help take some of the pressure off the family finances to help them get back on their feet. The majority of UK foodbanks are affiliated with the national foodbank charity The Trussell Trust, who assist with organisation and data collection etc.
Over the last year I’ve been part of a small team working to set-up a foodbank in my local area – organising premesis, governance, finances, applying for grants, recruiting volunteers etc, and last Saturday I spent a couple of very enjoyable hours, along with the Youth Forum and many other volunteers, helping collect food donated by generous shoppers outside my local Co-Op supermarket, on behalf of the (soon to be opened), Forest of Dean Foodbank.
If you’re looking for something positive to get involved in within your local community this year why not consider your local foodbank – they’ll be happy to accept food donations or any offers of help, and you can be sure you will help make a tremendous positive difference to people’s lives.
Photo by sterlingpr via Flickr