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Food Poverty Reveals Britain’s Starved Political Imagination

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Government statistics published at the end of December show that the poorest 10% of the UK population may be at risk of malnutrition. Following what is traditionally a period of over-indulgence at Christmas, these figures are even more disturbing. Rising food prices are one possible cause, but it is also to do with the actual food that is being consumed and its poor nutritional value. Significant numbers of poor people are consuming fewer calories than they need to maintain their full body weight. Last year the poorest 10% of the population spent over 20% more on nutrition than in 2007, but received 7% less in return. Furthermore, there is a widening gap between the rich and the poor. Does this matter? Apart from obvious issues of justice and equality, such statistics bring to the surface one of the immediate effects of poverty and its impact upon the whole of people’s lives. Without appropriate diet and nutrition, none of us will be able to function effectively as we might, and other problems of health, wellbeing and economic and social activity will be set in train.

So whose fault is this? Although the churches and related charities have been drawing to the policy makers’ attentions the growing demand on foodbanks and the fact that it is people already in work who are becoming increasingly dependent upon them, there is a tendency in government to point the finger at the victims themselves. A Conservative peer, Baroness Jenkin of Kennington, asserted that poor people are going hungry because they do not know how to cook; basic cooking skills have been lost with the result that poor people are unable to produce nutritious meals from scratch. This is but one example of what has become an established mantra within both political and media circles — if there is a problem, look first (and even solely) at the individuals concerned, and ignore any structural or system failures resulting from government policies.

A recent book emerging from the growing body of literature known as behavioural economics brings such an interpretation into sharp relief. In Scarcity: The True Cost of Not Having Enough Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir present a series of concepts to suggest that any of us placed in a situation of poverty and scarcity would find ourselves facing the same problems and challenges. Their basic concepts are: tunneling/focus; myopia; bandwidth (capacity); slack in the system; shock; quick fixes; attending to the urgent but not to the important. Without going into the details of these, it is possible to see that this is, in some ways, an expanded version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In other words, one has to be able to operate at the more basic levels of human needs, food, warmth, shelter, and we could add nutrition and diet, before one can begin to function effectively, let alone think about the demands further up in one’s life. When the immediate concern is to buy enough food, and therefore have enough money, just to feed oneself (and one’s dependents) for the next week, one is less likely to be able to think beyond this and to engage in even medium-term, let alone long-term, planning or strategies to counter the deeper problems. When a person has only limited bandwidth (or what I would call capacity) to begin to think about and address a host of immediate issues, other concerns get put to one side. Those who rely on payday loans, for instance, live from short-term loan to short-term loan, often getting deeper and deeper into debt, in order simply to deal with the immediate shortage of money. To the extent that this is the case, the political culture of “blaming the victim” is a deliberate ploy to deflect attention from the underlying issues and their causes.

Another term that we might use to describe what becomes scarce in this context is energy. The problem with a deficit of nutrition is that one is left without the requisite energy to tackle or address the myriad problems that one is faced with. Anyone suffering from even a short-term illness will recognise that one becomes so focused on the immediate symptoms and their hoped-for relief that other concerns slip rapidly down one’s personal agenda. As horizons narrow (as they also tend to do for those in older age) and one tunnels into the immediate, the energy to deal with wider issues diminishes and dissipates. One could even extend this to current UK politics with its narrow focus upon austerity and deficit reduction: all the energy goes into these objectives at the cost of other concerns such as health, education and environment. The effect of this, as the churches have been only too ready to point out, is that overall levels of wellbeing then suffer and inequalities increase at the cost of the whole; even tax returns diminish!

So our energies need to be expanded and redirected. This impacts both upon our understandings of economics and how humans function in practice, rather than according to the theories; hence the potential value of some aspects of behavioural economics and the insights it gleans from research in psychology, and also upon Religious Studies which now moves towards a greater acknowledgement of the material nature of our existence. As my colleague John Atherton has pointed out in his recent book Challenging Religious Studies: The Wealth, Wellbeing and Inequalities of Nations, calorific or nutritional deficiencies are sources of deprivation, and there was a point in the early 19th century when 20% of Britain’s population was unable to work because of this problem. Further, in a forthcoming book, A Philosophy of Christian Materialism: Entangled Fidelities and the Common Good (Baker, James and Reader, Ashgate 2015), we argue that recent developments in philosophy can broaden our understanding of what it is to be human, taking into account the interrelationships or assemblages that constitute a realist approach, and the crucial challenge of seeing the human in relation to the non-human (which would include the food that we eat). The scarcities that we face relate both to food, income and welfare, but also to political and religious imagination, all of which are required to redirect our activities towards the greater good.

John Reader is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.

Join the discussion on foodbanks and more at our pre-election conference, in partnership with Church Urban Fund and the Joint Public Issues Team.


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In the Face of Poverty, the Church is Still the Voice of the People

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The Feeding Britain report commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and launched today, has laid bare the countless stories of human misery and suffering caused by hunger and poverty in the UK. The statistics reveal that nearly a million UK citizens have needed to cross the barrier of shame and ask for food from a food bank. This is not surprising when you consider that over 13 million people in the UK are considered to be in poverty. The main drivers for people having to use food banks is not unemployment, but depressed wages and disruptions in welfare provisions, caused by bureaucratic changes to the welfare system which can leave citizens arbitrarily without any income for weeks on end.  These factors are exacerbated by the rise in housing and energy costs, leaving many of our citizens with the stark choice of going hungry in order to simply keep a roof over their heads. The cross-party report advocates a multi-levered approach to what it calls a hunger-free Britain, including bigger food banks to distribute more food, advice and benefits, a rise in the minimum wage, and the provision of free meals during the school holidays for poorer children.

There have been endless reports on poverty and food banks since the start of the austerity measures introduced by the Coalition government in 2010. Yet what is different this time is the widespread coverage the report has received and, in particular, the comments by the Archbishop of Canterbury suggesting that the hidden poverty in the UK is more shocking than overt poverty in African countries. Cutting across a full spectrum of media from right to left, the report has made the front pages of both the Mail on Sunday and the Guardian. This feels like a simmering issue which has finally come of age as Christmas approaches, and a general election looms. It is more than likely to be a defining issue that shapes the political debate for many years to come.

The power of the report lies in its clear and objective statistical analysis of a hidden social problem; hidden because those most directly affected are by and large too exhausted and marginalised to get their experiences acknowledged by the mainstream. In other words, this report shines a critical but impassioned light on a social blight that not only affects millions of fellow citizens but also directly calls into the question the sort of society we have sleepwalked in to. It raises the acutely awkward moral and political questions of how we have managed to create a social and economic order where so many people struggle to acquire the basic goods for a flourishing and meaningful human life (i.e. food, shelter, water, warm clothing) in a society that has more than enough resources to go round.

In its clarity, tone and media coverage the report feels like a touchstone statement, one whose analysis and voice connects with the public sphere and will ensure that people will not be satisfied until the issues it raises are being seen to be addressed. It follows in a long tradition of significant faith-based reports, and I hope it can be as powerful as those which came before it. First of all, I am thinking of William Booth’s report In Darkest England and The Way Out. Written in the 1890s it exposed the hidden poverty and squalor of late Victorian industrial cities, and proposed a number of key welfare reforms around banking, housing and training centres.

William Temple is cited in the introduction to today’s report, reminding us of the legacy of Church-based interventions which seeking better ways when faced with inequality. Temple looked at the ravages of inequality, despair and bankruptcy in the 1930s and its contribution to the rise of totalitarian states in the run-up to the WWII. When he wrote Christianity and Social Order in 1942, he articulated the basis of a just and fair social order and human flourishing that included access to free education, free healthcare, decent housing and rights of representation to work. Temple died in 1944 but his vison was implemented by Beveridge and the first Labour majority government in 1945, in what became the universal and comprehensive welfare state.

More recently, the Faith in the City report of the 1980s exposed the plight of those de-industrialised urban communities struggling to exist as other parts of Britain enjoyed the new market-led and re-regulated boom in globalised technology and financial services. Branded as Marxist by the Thatcher government, it again reminded wider British society of its obligations as a civilised and progressive society to provide the means of human flourishing for all our citizens, not just the privileged few. The report galvanised the Major government (with the energetic support of Michael Heseltine) and New Labour (under the influence of Lord Rogers) to make the regeneration of inner urban areas and city centres a top political priority.

There are of course major reservations about what this latest report is trying to do and the context from which it emerges. Not least, in the enshrining of food banks as somehow normative features of our policy landscape which will perpetuate moral distinctions between deserving and underserving poor, and will deflect the will for political change. As Prof Elizabeth Dowler commented in the Guardian’s coverage of the report, the exponential rise in poverty and inequality we have seen since 2008 can ‘only be properly dealt with by the state tacking the fundamental structural causes’.

However, this should not detract from the fact that this report has the potential to be the latest in a long-line of influential faith-based reports into social conditions that galvanise real political change. At the heart of all these reports is a social, political and moral imaginary that says quite simply ‘All human beings matter’, irrespective of their social or ethnic background, and it is only in relationship and solidarity with one another that our true humanity is fulfilled.

Chris Baker is Director of Research at William Temple Foundation. 

Explore the power and impacts of faith-based leadership at our forthcoming conference Building a Politics of Hope, in partnership with Church Urban Fund and the Joint Public Issues Team.


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Where Has Global Poverty Gone?

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Guest blogger Emily Winter is a PhD candidate at the University of Lancaster. Emily’s research focuses on Christian social action groups’ strategies to engage young people.

[Editorial Note 04/19: Sadly, the Make Poverty History site is no longer active. But you can read more about the current fight against poverty on the Compassion UK charity website.]

The Enough Food IF campaign last year sparkled quickly and quietly, like a damp firework, and made only a minimal appearance in the national media.  This contrasts strikingly with the success, in terms of both publicity and mobilisation, of the two previous national global poverty campaigns here in the UK — Make Poverty History (2005) and Jubilee 2000.  Whilst Jubilee mobilised 70,000 in Birmingham in 1998 and Make Poverty History attracted 225,000 people for the Gleneagles Summit, Enough Food IF gathered only 45,000 people for the Big IF event in London and 8,000 for the Big IF event in Belfast.  Are we witnessing then, a declining public interest in, and energy for, global poverty?  And what is the role of Christianity in this picture?

In all three global poverty campaigns, Christian organisations, agencies and churches have been crucial in providing movement leadership and centres of engagement and mobilisation.  However, there is a sense recently that there has been some degree of “turning inwards”, leading to an increased focus on domestic issues both for the Church and the wider public.  Simultaneously, recent years seem to demonstrate a “Christianisation” or “religionisation” of international development, where it appears to have partly remained an issue in the churches and other religious institutions, but diminished in the thinking of the general public.  From my own experience, at the time of the IF campaign the only people with whom I had conversations about it were Christians.  Of the 40 of my friends who “like” Enough Food IF on Facebook, I know 39 from Christian circles, leaving just one “like” to represent the interest of my extensive Facebook network of non-religious and politically-engaged contacts.  This compares negatively to the wider buzz I remember experiencing as a teenager around the Make Poverty History campaign, which extended beyond churches and Christian circles to include conversations at school and in the work place.

How then can we explain this decline in interest?  Firstly, the impact of the recession should be considered.  Research carried out on behalf of DFID (Department for International Development) suggests that there has been a decline in public support for expenditure on global development following the recession. The report states, ‘declining support for increased Government action and spend has continued post-recession: the focus has also been on domestic issues in terms of expenditure’.  We might perhaps, similarly assume that the recession has led to a “turning inwards” by the churches, as domestic problems, epitomised by the rise of the food bank, become prescient. Wider secular activism also demonstrates a turning inwards, as witnessed by marches against student fees, the anti-cuts movement and the Occupy movement.  The Occupy movement’s slogan “we are the 99%”, for example, references domestic inequality, ignoring the fact that globally several Occupiers might find themselves part of the much-maligned 1%.

Secondly, whilst we should not ignore the fact that engagement with faith-based groups occurred under the New Labour government (and indeed before), this has taken new forms under Cameron’s government, shifting from an emphasis on community cohesion projects to faith-based organisations increasingly taking roles as service providers in order to fill gaps in the welfare state. Not only would we expect this to increase the number of faith-based organisations taking a role as social service and welfare providers and therefore shifting the focus to domestic issues, it has also understandably affected the terms of both journalistic and academic debate, focusing on Christian engagement with domestic poverty often at the expense of Christian campaigning on global poverty.

Finally, the global poverty sector is plagued with difficulties, problems and intense self-scrutiny to an ever-increasing extent.  Popular books such as Moyo’s Dead Aid (2009) have lent credence in recent years – though such debates have a considerably longer heritage – to the sense of development as a troubled, even doomed, project, subject to increasing levels of scepticism.  In this context, the Millennium Development Goals have failed to provide the impetus to action that might have been expected.

So, given the historic role of the churches and Christianity in both raising awareness of and alleviating global poverty, where next?  I would suggest that significant attention should be granted to the following three areas, representing simultaneously areas of considerable potential and challenge: participation, partnership and propheticism.

PARTICIPATION.  As witnessed by Occupy and its attempts to organise non-hierarchically and employ consensual decision-making, there is a trend away from top-down, paternalistic political mobilisations.  Grass-roots mobilisation should thus not just be about getting local communities on board with a campaign, but enabling them to shape its parameters.  The issue of participation also provokes challenges of who to engage: the public?  “Dechurched” Christians?  New mega Churches?  All these areas demand new and novel approaches.

PARTNERSHIP.  The development sector is particularly troubled by how to present, and relate to, the suffering “other” and partnership between NGOs in the Global North and local organisations in the Global South has emerged as a key strategy for alleviating global poverty.   Whilst partnership functions too often merely as a handy buzzword, there must be constant awareness of the power relationships enacted in any development project and the ongoing legacies of colonialism.  UK churches have a significant opportunity to create new partnerships for action and support, through the involvement of the diaspora communities that make up such a large part of new church membership.

PROPHETICISM.  Jubilee is intriguing as a late-modern social movement for its use of the Old Testament concept of Jubilee as its inspiration.  The coinciding of this concept with the Millennium year lent the Jubilee campaign a sense of moral imperative and Prophetic witness.  In an era of scepticism about charities and aid, and a wider sense of “compassion fatigue”, in which many feel that nothing can be done to solve the seemingly endless list of world problems, there is a need to recapture such sensibility.  Campaigning, and protest, like most activities, draw on a repertoire of tried and tested methods- the strike, the rally, the march, the petition.  These methods, owing to their familiarity, may gain limited publicity; for example, recent protests in support of Palestine.

So the challenge now is to think outside these parameters and consider new ways of doing politics?  Not just to capture media attention, but to spark conversation, inspire debate and get people involved.


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