On Monday, our latest report on food poverty and hunger – hit the headlines again. Published jointly with Oxfam and Trussell Trust, Below the Breadline highlights the further escalation in the numbers of people requiring emergency food aid over the past year – and the increasingly threadbare nature of the supposed welfare safety net.
Its publication was timed to coincide with Channel 4’s excellent Breadline Kids documentary, broadcast on Monday evening (and still available on 4oD). Breadline Kids tells the true story of food poverty and hunger from the perspective of children and young people. And whilst I’m proud of Below the Breadline, to be honest, the young people’s testimonies have far more power to convey the true awfulness of what food poverty and hunger means to those who experience it at firsthand.
Our task as churches is not only to pull people out of the river, but to ask who or what is throwing them in in the first place.
Both Below the Breadline and Breadline Kids are unashamedly hard hitting. We are facing a situation in which increasing numbers of families and children are going hungry – a fact attested to by churches, foodbanks, advice agencies, public health officers in every corner of the UK. Watching Breadline Kids makes is extremely uncomfortable. And neither is Below the Breadline intended to be a comfortable read.
Church Action on Poverty, like Oxfam, is a resolutely non-party political organisation – but we do have a duty to draw attention to the hardship suffered by poor people we work with in the UK.
How and why is it that, in the sixth wealthiest country on the planet, children are going to bed hungry?
Alongside the heroic work of foodbanks, what is the proper role of the state in preventing hunger? What happened to the idea of the welfare safety net? Alongside the long-term impacts of economic crisis, recession, low pay and rising prices and debts, what have been the impacts of the Government’s welfare reforms, and austerity measures? What part do sanctions, benefit delays and administrative errors play?
These are rightly questions which as individuals, charities and churches we have a moral duty to ask – and to seek answers to. To ask such questions is not a sign of ‘political partisanship’ but of basic moral duty and concern for human dignity.
Church Action on Poverty is driven by a passionate belief in the dignity of all human beings. A belief that has been central to Christian belief for the past 2,000 years and an idea that has helped shape the development of the modern British state and society.
We have a proud tradition in this country of concern for the plight of the poor and the vulnerable. It could be described as one of the core values of what it is to be British.
If any of us fell on hard times, through misfortune, sickness, unemployment, low pay or yes, even though an act of rashness, misjudgement or stupidity on our part, we would hope that, failing all else, the safety net would prevent us – or our families, friends or children – slipping into destitution and hunger. Even the Victorian poor law and the dreaded workhouse guarantee that. And slaying the giant evil of want was part of the founding vision of the modern welfare state.
Below the Breadline calls on all political parties to re-commit to the principle of the welfare safety net, and to come up with a workable programme for radically reducing the numbers who need to go to food banks.
To be sure, the shape of the safety net needs to look different in 2014 than it did in 1997 or 1979, let alone 1945. But I have heard no politician of any political party say that there is no longer a need for a safety net.
Different political parties can rightly have different views on how to tackle poverty and hunger, but to claim that any attempts to raise the issue of food poverty and hunger is somehow ‘too political’ demeans politics, and does a huge disservice to those going hungry.
The argument is not about party politics but about how we tackle poverty and hunger together, and about the proper role of faith, charity and Government (of any political persuasion) in this task.
The question fundamentally comes down to this: Do we want to live in a civilised society which ensures that no one need go hungry in the sixth richest country on the planet, or do we not?