We need to concentrate on ending poverty – not just reducing food bank use

Food bank use by itself should not be a measure of success or failure, says Helen Barnard in this blog.

Steep rises in the number of people turning to food banks over the last few years have become one of the most tangible and high profile signs of hardship. Food bank use has also become a political football, its causes hotly debated. Today brings the latest round of this, with the Labour Party announcing a ‘plan to cut food bank use’.

Last December an All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger reported on the reasons behind rises in the number of people turning to charities for food. The Inquiry highlighted three big drivers of hunger in the UK: the rising cost of essentials, low wages, and problems in the benefits system. The Trussell Trust’s figures suggest that benefit delays are the single biggest cause of referrals to food banks. JRF’s State of the Nation report demonstrated the importance of rises in costs and a squeeze on incomes. Inflation has now fallen to zero, but since 2008 the cost of essential goods and services has risen by 28 per cent. Over the same period, the minimum wage has risen by 14 per cent, average wages by 9 per cent and the value of in- and out-of-work benefits has fallen. Three-fifths of people who moved from unemployment into work in the last year were paid less than the living wage. Our research into the future of the UK labour market demonstrated the need for big improvements in the quality of jobs at the lower end of the jobs market if work is to become a reliable route out of poverty.

We welcome the increasing focus on reducing poverty, and the fact that all of the political parties now claim to have plans to address high costs, low wages and the problems caused by the benefits system. But none have yet set out a comprehensive plan to properly address these causes of poverty. Last week’s Budget was a missed opportunity to improve the position of people on the lowest incomes, with £2.7 billion spent on raising the income tax personal allowance, which will primarily benefit those on middle incomes. Labour’s announcements today give little detail about how they will reduce benefit delays or help low-paid people move to better jobs. The announcements offer some measures to reduce visible hardship but are a long way from tackling their underlying causes.

The generosity and commitment of those who work in or donate to food banks is to be admired. However it is vital that we tackle the factors that leave so many people relying on charity to meet their basic needs. Going to food banks is only one way that struggling households cope with low incomes. Many of those in poverty never have any contact with food banks, managing by cutting back on essentials or turning to other sources of help. The role of different charities changes over time, in response to many factors, not only levels of need. We have plenty of robust measures of poverty and hardship – national and local data which can be tracked over time. It is important to understand who goes to food banks, what drives them there and how they can best be helped. But food bank use by itself should not be a measure of success or failure.

Tomorrow we publish our Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion report for Scotland. This includes over 30 indicators which we have tracked for more than 10 years. It will give a much fuller picture of how things have changed for people in poverty. Improving their lot requires a comprehensive strategy to tackle the causes of poverty.