Comment: Failure to fix hunger caused by poverty is a political decision
At 16 years old, I stood at the end of the supermarket till anxiously watching the sub-total build up on the display. I doubted the calculator that I’d brought with me. I wondered whether I’d picked up items excluded from a sale and considered what I could give back from the items rolling towards me if I didn’t have enough money. All the while, I was hungry.
That’s not a fictional story. That’s what it’s like for many families across the country, up against a rising tide of low wages and increasing costs. It isn’t a new phenomenon either. Fourteen years ago, it was the norm for my family during a weekly shop and the same for many other families in the housing scheme in which I lived.
The society-eroding narrative being peddled at the time, on TV shows like Benefits Street and The Scheme, allowed for us to be conveniently lumped together. There was no critique of the sweeping austerity cuts or the rising cost of essential groceries in these spaces. The blame was placed firmly on the individuals.
I remember sitting in my house, watching programmes like this on TV. A TV which had a coin-operated box attached to it because the hire purchase firm we got it from didn’t trust people in my community to pay direct debits.
I wondered was I, as a 16-year-old kid or any of my siblings, responsible for our situation? Was my mum? So overloaded with trauma and worry about making ends meet, it didn’t ever cross my mind that something was wrong in the world and other people were, at least, partly responsible.
Since the Conservatives came to power in Westminster under David Cameron and his LibDem deputy Nick Clegg, we’ve all grown familiar with the sight of foodbanks, soup kitchens and odious influencers videoing their so-called kindness towards people sleeping rough on the streets.
In some homes, the cost of austerity is entertainment or a conversation to be avoided over dinner. In others, it’s the harsh reality of a society pitted against one another.
Many of us are familiar with the lives of people on the edge of existence. If you’re middle class enough, you might just have seen a Ken Loach retelling of these stories, told in the manner of a tabloid come to life. More recently, Marcus Rashford and other celebrities have backed the cause for children to not go hungry and through this, have showcased some of the lived experiences of those struggling to keep their head above water.
Ultimately, hunger is political. Choices are made in ballot boxes, from seats in Holyrood or in rooms at Westminster and at the very end of those decision, someone goes hungry.
It’s not something we inherently want for society. I don’t think anyone is so callous as to desire people go hungry, but as the foodbank queues grow and soup kitchens across the country are livestreamed on Facebook, it’s a reality that we live in.
Society and kind people within our communities are trying to stop the rising tide through sheer concerted effort. People donate to foodbanks, they sign petitions and volunteer in local community efforts. In our desperate search for solutions, we ask supermarkets to donate food waste to those in need or to create packages made up of own brand products that people can buy to pop into a conveniently located foodbank basket, so they can do their shopping guilt free.
All the while, missing what’s right in front of us. We’re so focused on fixing the symptom that we can’t treat the root cause, which to put it bluntly is a lack of money. All the tins of soup in the world won’t fix the problem. Nor will the well branded, ‘no frills’ supermarket products punted by global firms as if they’re undertaking an act of kindness. Why can’t we just give people more money?
I already hear the replies. Concerns about what people will spend it on. Fears that instead of buying as much food as they possibly can, they might buy enough to live on and insert some joy into their life. The old campaign slogan, ‘Bread for all and roses too’ seems all but forgotten when we dare to speak about a universal basic income - in some circles anyway.
It would be easy to say, regardless of your political views, we all need to come together and support those less fortunate than ourselves but in doing so we alienate our neighbours, friends and colleagues who could be struggling to keep afloat in the rising tide of poverty.
That coming together thus far has led to discord and views such as ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ as we deposit one-layer, own brand toilet roll into a basket for the less fortunate.
There are solutions that don’t rely on charity. The Poverty Alliance and the Independent Food Aid Network have been shouting about it for weeks now. The UK Government needs to keep the lifeline that is the £20 increase in Universal Credit. Once it’s done that, for goodness sake, explore a universal basic income. After all, we should have a minimum standard of living in 2021.