The food bank debate: shifting the axis of analysis

by Jonathan Tame, 20th May 2014

Food bank investigation by the Sunday Mirror-1519590The current debate surrounding the rapid expansion of food banks in Britain can sound a bit like two clowns shouting at a children’s party:

“The changes in the welfare system have left lots of people without enough food!”…..
“Oh, no they haven’t!”
“Oh, yes they have!”
“OH, NO THEY HAVEN’T!”

The problem is that the debate is stuck on just one axis: whether or not people out of work or on low incomes are getting enough money to pay for basic needs.

Those on the Left argue that the Coalition government’s welfare reforms are leaving an increasing number of people outside the safety net that the welfare state is supposed to provide. Others on the Right point to numerous examples of unscrupulous people taking advantage of this new service and obtaining food parcels when they don’t really need them.

However there is another axis on which to evaluate food banks in the overall context of welfare provision for the poor and marginalised. The question is not how much welfare is needed, but who should provide it in a way that is fair and sustainable?

The rise in food banks represents a shift along the axis from welfare that is centralised, state-funded and financial in nature towards decentralised system that is more charitable, personal and relational. This is closer to the biblical model of welfare, where support and care was provided firstly through extended families, then via the local community, and in the last resort, from the central state – all in a culture where giving was a social obligation.

This shift has three potential benefits. Firstly, it is more sustainable in the long run: local communities donated over 8,000 tonnes of food last year and are providing 30,000 volunteers for the 420 Trussell Trust food banks in UK, at a time when the state welfare sector is facing years of tough spending cuts.

Secondly, people in need are getting more relational support: instead of receiving money through an impersonal bank transfer, they will be welcomed by concerned volunteers at the food banks who provide them with food parcels. Of course there is a shame factor to overcome, but there will be a human touch and a connection with the community which can help reduce the sense of isolation which may people on welfare feel.

Lastly, once a community-based system of welfare provision is well established, it has the potential to sift out claimants who are not in genuine need, because they are more likely to be known by the people administering the welfare.

I saw a similar principle at work when I lived in West Africa. I regularly had local people knocking on my door with an account of how they had fallen on hard times and needed a loan from me. I couldn’t easily say no, but I was afraid that some of the people were taking me for a ride. But then I learned how a missionary who had been there for many years handled such requests. He would send anyone asking for money to the national church pastor across the road, who would sound out their story. If he sent them back again then the missionary would give them what they asked for.

The current politicised debate over food banks is in danger of missing a strategic opportunity: to forge new partnerships which could pave the way for more decentralised welfare provision, and reduce our dependence as a society on a system that has become financially unsustainable and relationally disjointed.

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Category: Blogs

May, 2014

Comments (10)

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  1. Mary Douglas says:

    I completely agree. You have hit the proverbial nail on its head.

    • jeff says:

      Or is the growth of food banks something to do with largely well intentioned church members discovering too simple a means of demonstrating their faith, rather than a fully considered approach to address quite complex issues in chaotic households?

  2. Michael says:

    Good insights, both biblical & compassionate. Thank you. But there is still a critical change in food support happening too quickly – the outcome of insufficient planning & affecting those on lowest incomes & benefits most.

  3. Paul says:

    The “new” welfare system you describe looks a lot like the post 1830 Poor Law system.
    The effects were an improvement over the Elizabethan system it replaced but horrific by today’s standards. The worst abuses lay in the empowerment of local “good people” to act as judges of the needy. The judge and supplicant relationship neither worked in practice nor can be justified by Christian ethics as many of the same “good people” tried to do at the time.

    Today’s foodbank volunteers do not want to ‘sift out’ the undeserving poor or ‘sound out stories’ as in your example. All the relational value you rightly point to is lost as soon as one given arbitary power over the other.

    Upsettingly you incorrectly assert that the current system is increasingly financially unsustainable – yet we spent a greater proportion of our national income on welfare in 1994. The proportion of our income we spent on welfare slowly decreased until 2009 when it jumped again to levels slightly than 1994 levels – if you exclude pensions much lower due to today’s older population.
    Judging what we give by the proportion of income is profoundly biblical (eg the tithe) and says that everyone including the poor sick elderly and disabled should have a share in our nations wealth should it increase. I can see no injuction moral or biblical to argue against such a sharing – indeed quite the opposite.

    • JubileeCentre says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments Paul. It’s true that the proportion of welfare spending on pensions has increased greatly in the last 20 years, and other forms of welfare have declined as a proportion of GDP. Your remarks led me to this web page which shows an interesting graph of historical spending on welfare and pensions.
      Of course there is a major debate on the future of welfare (Theos have produced an excellent publication on this recently) and in this post I was seeking to explore the value of making welfare more decentralised and participative, and especially relational. I’m sure there are other ways to imagine how this could be done without reverting to the mid 19th century… anyone else want to comment on this?

    • Peter Davies says:

      Thanks Paul. Although I’m a Jubilee Centre supporter I felt uncomfortable with this article without being able to express why which you’ve done very well!

  4. Stephen de Garis says:

    Jonathan you know that I am sceptical about food-banks, but I would need to have first hand knowledge as to how they operate. In principle anything that operates locally is more efficient – physical contact with the needy and those who take advantage and so misuse a system intended surely to provide only for those who cannot feed themselves. I personally believe it is correct to assess the needy and judging the use / misuse of The Poor Law should not be a criterion which is based on bias. If the UK is a rich country (I do not know how this is assessed), then there surely should be administrative systems to take care of the truly needy who might otherwise perish, out of charity.
    What contribution to society do the recipients make for the free food? Some contribution in whatever form should be required to avoid the development of dependency and a lack of will to be self sustainable. I regard this as being consistent with biblical teaching.

  5. Nick Read says:

    I do agree with the article. There is a huge amount the local church communities can do to help the poor and marginalised. Currently, we are feeding about 100 people a week at my church. Many of the people come with complex needs associated with poverty including addictions, mental health, relational and spiritual issues. As well as providing food we are working in partnership with the drug and alcohol services who provide a drop-in and detox in the church, mental health teams and organsations providing housing. In addition we are providing lunches, a community garden,cooking classes, art and music therapy along with prayer and ongoing pastoral support. The response from the local coommunity has been very encouraging in providing hands on help, money and food. On team we have a retired social worker, doctor, nurse, counsellor and those trained to help with money management. Therefore, we are in a position to carry out our own assessments and monitor ongoing need.
    What we have found is that alot of people who come for help get involved and volunteer their help. It is well known that one of the major causes of mental health in the UK is caused by social isolation. The provision of a caring community which provides a listening ear and a compassionate and intelligent whole-person response is essential for long-term recovery.

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