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Austerity works, according to our chancellor George Osborne. Austerity works. But apart from the Government’s pals at Wonga, who revealed last week that they make £1 million in profit a week by lending an average of £600 to people the week before payday, who does austerity actually work for?
Certainly not the 13 million people living in poverty in the UK.
Certainly not the half a million people that rely on emergency food handouts to feed themselves and their families.
When I say ‘poverty’, you probably conjure up images of children far away, emotive TV appeals, and ruthless dictators. How many of you think of the homeless that sit outside supermarket entrances and cash machines? How many of you have seen the queue at your local food bank, or even know where it is?
But of course. That’s not poverty. Not in the sixth or seventh richest country in the world. That’s ‘austerity’.
An article in the Guardian recently claimed that ‘austerity has been hijacked by the moralisers’ – and judging by George Osborne’s latest announcement that ‘austerity works’, it seems they were right. As though it’s all just ‘cosy frugality’, as though we are all just living in a snapshot of a nostalgic poster of post-War Britain. I’m surprised the posters haven’t made a reappearance, unaltered, to back up the chancellors claims.
Eat less bread. Food is a weapon. Your own vegetables all year round. Dig for victory. Home grown food. Make do and mend. Keep calm and carry on.
But there’s nothing cosy and nostalgic about missing days of meals, turning the heating off for two consecutive winters and every bloody day and night in between.
There’s nothing cosy and nostalgic about unscrewing the light bulbs so you can’t accidentally turn them on, or selling your son’s shoes, or drinking the formula milk that the food bank gave you because there’s nothing else. If that’s cosy frugality, the moralisers and apologisers ought to try it. For a month. Or six. Or eighteen.
Turn off the fridge, because it’s empty anyway. Sell anything you can see lying around that you might get more than a quid for. Walk everywhere in the pouring rain, in your only pair of shoes, with a soaking wet and sobbing toddler old trailing behind you. Drag that toddler into every pub and shop in unreasonable walking distance and ask them if they have any job vacancies. Try not to go red as the girl behind the counter appraises your tatty jumper and dirty jeans before telling you that they have no jobs available. “For you”, you add in your head, and you drag that toddler home, still soaking, still unemployed, to not-quite dry out in your freezing cold flat.
Put two jumpers on that you’ll wear all week, to keep washing to a minimum. You sit at home in your coat anyway, and nobody’s there to notice.
Drag yourself to the cooker to pour some tinned tomatoes over some cold pasta, and try not to hurl it across the room in frustration when your toddler tells you he doesn’t want it. I want something else, Mummy. But there isn’t anything else. But aren’t we supposed to just keep calm and carry on?
You get up the next morning and give your child one of the last weetabix, mashed with a little water, with a glass of tap water to wash it down with.
Where’s mummys breakfast? He asks, all big blue eyes and innocent concern. You tell him you aren’t hungry, but you weren’t hungry last night either, and sooner or later he’ll notice that mummy never seems hungry any more.
Hunger hurts. Hunger distresses, and depresses. Admitting that you cannot afford to feed your child is both terrifying and humiliating. Professionals that signpost people to food banks for help often report that they are reluctant to go, because it feels like begging. And my god, it feels like begging.
And you think if you admit to skipping meals, to feeding your child the same cold pasta for nights on end, you think if anyone notices the badly damaged wrists from your recent suicide attempt, that you might lose your son. He might be taken into care. And despite the cold and the despair and the mind raging with doubt and fear and uselessness, there’s a little boy that relies on you to provide his meals – no matter how rubbish they are – and to put his jumper on before he goes to bed at night. So you say you’re fine. But you’re not. You’re full of rain and heartache and anger and it’s starting to seep through the cracks in the kept up appearances. But don’t you just keep calm, and carry on?
My circumstances were not unique to me. The Oxfam report – Walking The Breadline, published in June this year, states that half a million people in the UK rely on food banks. Yet the Government puts their fingers in their ears, blaming feckless parenting and scroungers. Half a million feckless parents. Half a million scroungers. They claim that there is no link between cuts to welfare and the growing demand for food banks.
Lord Freud claims that people ‘turn up for free food’ – painting a picture of people waltzing in and topping up the Ocado delivery with a few battered fruits and some dented tins of tomatoes. Such comments display a complete disconnect from reality. You can’t just ‘turn up’ to a food bank. You need to be referred – by a childcare professional, a health visitor, social services or similar agency. Someone needs to recognise that your household is at serious risk of going hungry if they don’t intervene. And intervention is a feared word. So people become adept at pretending they don’t need help.
Michael Gove blames child poverty and hunger on reckless parenting – with no acknowledgement to the fact that many people using food banks are doing so because of benefit delays, sanctions, low income, and unemployment. No acknowledgement that many people who use food banks are IN WORK. What sort of a society do we live in where people who go out to work to support their families, need emergency food handouts?
Many parents tell of going to bed hungry themselves in order to feed their children. Gove would call that reckless parenting. And they repeat, they bleat, that food bank use has nothing to do with welfare cuts.
So here’s a figure.:
Since April 2013, and the introduction of the Bedroom Tax, food bank use in the UK has increased 175%.
The number one reason cited for food bank referral is cuts or delays to benefits, including sanctions and Bedroom Tax.
I’m here today, because as far as I can see, the Green party is the party for the future, for fairness and sustainability. But where’s the fairness, the sustainability, the hope for the future, for today’s children who are growing up hungry with no jobs to look forward to?
We need a short term solution, and a long term solution.
Short term – donate something to your local food bank. Pasta, rice, tinned vegetables, UHT milk, tinned fruit, whole grains – anything that doesn’t need to be stored in the fridge or freezer. Because although food banks aren’t THE solution, at the moment they’re all we have.
And long term, what can you do? Get behind the living wage campaign. Because an extra pound or so an hour to our lowest paid workers means that they will depend on less benefit top ups than they currently do. They will have more disposable income to support themselves and their families – buying more, feeding into the economy, and paying more tax. It’s a solution my three year old son could have come up with, so please, sign the petitions, put pressure on the Government, and help your fellow citizens – the people that sit on the supermarket checkouts until 11pm so you can buy a bottle of wine after work, the people that clean your office, and look after your elderly relatives – help them to live a life that is not dependent on food banks and top ups from this Government that they are slowly taking away.
As Desmond Tutu said – there comes a point where we need to stop pulling people out of the river.
We need to go upstream and stop them from falling in.
Jack Monroe at Green Party conference, 14th September 2013.