By Professor David Owen
In the last year, while the Government has pursued an economic austerity policy and propagated a rhetoric of ‘benefit scrounging’ and ‘undeserving poor’ (a very old rhetoric of the rich talking about the poor, as Mary Beard has reminded us – also listen here), the number of food banks in Britain has doubled to more than 3000. In 2011-12 more than 130,000 people were helped by food banks, that number is rising rapidly (on the back of energy price increase that leave ever more people worrying about being able to pay their bills), with hundreds of volunteers spending part of their Christmas distributing food and trying to tackle the ‘hidden hungry’ who won’t accept free food because they feel stigmatised by the need for it. Meanwhile a report by the Resolution Foundation argues that millions of Britons face a ‘financial precipice’ in a time of stagnant wages and high household debt. Yet most of the government cuts have yet to bite.
One might hope that the citizens of the UK would support their poverty-stricken compatriots in this climate. After all, we no longer live a context in which the poor are silent and only the rich write the news. Articulate blogs such as ‘Diary of a Benefit Scrounger’ and ‘Benefit Scrounging Scum’ provide views from the sharp end. Yet the British Social Attitudes Survey reports that attitudes towards welfare recipients are hardening and only 28% of those asked wanted to see more spending on welfare – down from 35% at the beginning of the recession in 2008, and from 58% in 1991. In this respect, at least, the Coalition government seem to be in tune with popular opinion.
It is, no doubt, an excellent thing that many people will spend part of their Christmas helping the less fortunate – but poverty isn’t just at Christmas, and it is a problem likely to get considerably worse before it gets better.