The aim should be to eradicate the need for food banks, not to fund them. Funding things perpetuates them, as I will explain later.
Food banks are a symptom of poverty, they aren’t the cause of poverty. If you have a headache you can take a pain killer to reduce the discomfort, but it won’t do a thing for the brain tumour that caused the headache in the first place. Funding food banks may treat one of the symptoms of poverty but it won’t treat the cause. Any tax payers’ money that is spent must be spent on eradicating poverty, not treating the symptoms of it.
Supporters of food banks are saying that they are a measure of how much poverty is increasing in Britain today. Poppycock. In 1914 there were no food banks. Does that mean there was no poverty in 1914? Of course it doesn’t. In fact in real terms there were much higher levels of poverty. All the existence of food banks does, apart from providing food of course, is make poverty more visible.
Let’s say there’s a town of 30,000 people, but it doesn’t have a food bank. Does that mean that the town has no poverty? No, of course it doesn’t. If you then open a food bank in the town and on the first day 30 people turn up to ask for food, does that mean there are 30 more poor people than there were the day before? No again. Food banks are not a reliable measurement of poverty, or of its increase, only a visible indicator that it already exists.
OK, if the aim is to eradicate the need for food banks then how do you go about it? Well, if I knew the answer to that I’d be down in Westminster trying to get a meeting with the Prime Minister to discuss it with him.
What I do know is that you can only spend money once. If the government spends money supporting food banks then that money would have to come from another part of the budget. From where do you want to take it? Overseas Aid? Education? Health? Defence? Policing? Welfare?
Come on, come on, quickly now, make a decision, there are starving people to feed. And before you say “tax the rich” it would take two years to get the legislation through Parliament and another year to actually collect the taxes (if you can) and the need is now. Let’s have a knee jerk reaction. They always work, don’t they? And a knee jerk reaction was, I suspect, what the Archbishop wanted. He wanted political parties to start out-doing each other with promises to fund food banks, just as they try to out-do each on other high profile issues.
You don’t cure poverty by throwing money at people. You cure poverty, as I think I have said before, by giving people a route out of it. There are probably a number of routes, but at least one of them is education. You make sure people are employable so that they can take up the jobs that are available and the better their education the better the jobs they can take. We know those jobs exists because 200,000 plus people from Europe and elsewhere in the world come here every year to take up those jobs. If those jobs were being taken up by our own poor then those migrants wouldn’t travel to our shores because there would be nothing here for them when they arrived.
So where does the cause of poor education start? I know it isn’t in our schools. By and large they do a good job. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. If a child doesn’t want to learn, or isn’t encouraged to learn, then you have to hope it will spontaneously decide to learn and that’s a bit of a gamble. It’s not a gamble that we should be taking. The desire to learn starts within the home. Children who are encouraged to learn by their parents are the ones who learn the best. Children who know that their parents will be displeased if they are disruptive at school will sit and learn, rather than be disruptive.
Children who leave school with 10 A* GCSEs and 4 A* A Levels don’t do so because they are inherently intelligent. They do so because their parents are behind them encouraging them, supporting them and, where necessary, driving them. Intelligence may be a factor, the difference between a Grade C and an A* perhaps, but it isn’t the most important factor. The most important factor is parental attitude towards education.
Walk around any town centre between 9 and 4 on a school day and you will see a couple of symptoms, if you care to look. You will see mothers out shopping with school age children alongside them. You will also see groups of older school age children hanging around looking bored. Why aren’t they at school? Why isn’t someone doing something to get them back into school? If the parents encourage absenteeism, if the schools don’t corral the truants, then all that is happening is that we are creating the next generation of people who will live in poverty, because they won’t have the education or skills to get a decent job. I suspect that some schools are quite happy that some pupils are absent. If they aren’t in school then they can’t disrupt the class.
Zero hours contracts and low pay are a another symptom of poverty, not the cause of it. It’s a sign that there are poor people that are desperate to work and who will take any job, however unsatisfactory the contractual terms or the pay. People take those jobs because they have no choice. If they had a better education and better skills they would be able to get better jobs on proper contracts. In the meantime we have to import doctors, nurses, plumbers and bricklayers from Europe and beyond while our own population has to use food banks.
Low pay only exists because there are people who have no choice but to work for low pay. Zero hours contracts only exist because there are people who have no choice but to accept a zero hours contract. You can change the law on those two things. You can replace the minimum wage with a ‘living wage’ (which is actually just increasing the level of the minimum wage and giving it a new name), but the employers who exploit poverty will just find new ways to do it.
Do you see the disconnect here? All the political parties are squabbling about how high immigration levels are and how many border guards we need to reduce it, or we need to leave the EU to end it, while no one is trying to tackle the root cause that allows the well educated migrants to take the best paying jobs while our resident population has to take the dregs. The government talks tough on migration while its embassies are throwing entry visas around like confetti because the applicants have jobs to go to. The root cause is lack of education and skills in our resident population. Immigration is a symptom of this, but not the cause.
I know that there are departments in local education authorities that are responsible for getting absentee children back into school. As always there are probably too few people employed in them to deal with the size of the problem. But as far as I know there is no department of government or local government that is responsible for getting into the homes of the poor and changing their attitude towards education. We are talking intervention here.
Oh no. We might have to understand real people and how they live and how they think. Run away, run away. Too hard. Attack immigration instead, it’s far easier. We can make lots of noise, do nothing and then blame the EU. We’ve got away with it before so we’ll get away with it again.
There is, and always has been, a strong correlation between the educational achievement of parents and the educational achievements of their children. There is also a strong correlation between the attitude of parents towards education and the attitude of their children towards it. There have been academic studies done on this subject but no one seems to be heeding the findings.
We can continue to throw money at poverty and hope that one day it will magically disappear. Alternatively we can get down to the root causes of poverty and spend money addressing those. The Archbishop seems to be very keen to do the former. Why doesn’t he want to improve the way we do the latter?
One of the major groups behind food banks in the UK is a charity, The Trussell Trust, Registered number 1110522. They are the only national organisation providing food banks at the moment. It started work in Bulgaria before starting to organise food banks in the UK.
The Trussell Trust was founded in 1997 and became a charity in 2005. Its first UK food bank was set up by its founder in his garden shed in Salisbury in 2004 and it started its national expansion in 2005. Note those dates. Were the wicked Tories in office in 2005? Had the banking crash started in 2005? No to both questions. The trust was opening food banks at the rate of 5 a week at one point, long before the first hint of a crisis in the banking sector.
The trust’s website makes it clear that it is a Christian organisation and many of its food banks are established with the aid of local church groups. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, the giving of charity is a great Christian virtue. But could a Christian charity have contacts with Lambeth Palace? Could it be using the Archbishop to lobby for funding for it?
Some of you will have read my recent blog on charities and how efficient, or otherwise, charities are. So how does the Trussell Trust fare? Well, in 2013 it employed 41 people and had 750 volunteers. In salary terms it spent over £790,000, including National Insurance costs. To be fair, the amount they pay in wages to individuals is low in comparison to other charities: no employee received more than £60,000 a year and the average salary works out at about £19,000. However, you can see why the Archbishop might want Government funding.
At present all the wages bill has to be funded by donations from the public or through commercial activities such as charity shops. In terms of its efficiency its income for 2013 was £1.8 million while its expenditure on charitable activities was £1.1 million, making it just 61% efficient. Not very good. That only relates to its cash efficiency, of course, and doesn’t include food donated by the public or supermarkets. I think we can assume 100% efficiency there.
This is the problem with such schemes as food banks. They become self-perpetuating. If we actually eradicated poverty there would be no need for the Trussell Trust to provide food banks and all the trust would be left with is its projects in Bulgaria. They wouldn’t need 41 employees. Those 41 employees have a vested interest in maintaining food banks, not in eradicating the need for them.
That sounds very cynical, but imagine that you have a job that you like doing and one day your boss comes up and says “Sorry guys, but the world has changed and we don’t need to do what we’re doing any more. Here’s your final pay check. Good Luck.” I doubt you would be too happy about that. In fact you might even find yourself in need of a food bank yourself before long. Poverty itself is an industry. It pays people wages and not just the employees of The Trussell Trust.
The vested interests of employees, however, aren't the major cause of perpetuation.
The clergy are fond of using Bible stories to illustrate their messages, so I'll take a leaf from their book and take as my text the "feeding of the 5,000" (Matthew 14: 13-21). In that story Jesus is preaching to a large crowd when it becomes apparent they they have become hungry, as they didn't bring food with them. Jesus obviously didn't have a logistics professional amongst his disciples, but that's another story. Jesus gathers together the available food, 5 loaves and 3 fishes, and with the help of God this feeds 5,000 people with a little bit left over. Crisis averted.
In the Bible that's where the story ends. However, I have used my imagination to suggest what might have happened next. Its 5 or 6 hours later; Jesus has finished preaching but the crowd haven't gone home. Jesus asks them why not.
"Well," they reply, "why would we go home? If we stay here we get free food".
"But I have no food to give you." Replies Jesus.
"God helped you before, by making 5 loaves and 3 fishes feed all of us. He'll help you again, won't he?"
So Jesus went to the bakers and the fishermen and asked for more bread and more fishes so he could feed the congregation again. And again, and again.
For God substitute the government, for loaves and fishes substitute taxes and for the bakers and fishermen substitute the tax payer and you get the idea. Do you think it can't happen? It already is.
There is another problem that causes perpetuation in that it allows the more mealy mouthed of our politicians to dodge the issue. "Look", they would be able to say, "We are helping the poor. We're funding food banks". In the meantime the real issues of poverty are avoided and continue to cause suffering.
It's the same with paying benefits. Benefits don't cure poverty, they just make it slightly more tolerable. So long as benefits continue to be paid we are able to salve our collective consciences and brush the problems of poverty under the carpet.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should stop paying benefits or stop food banks from operating or stop donating money or food to them. Far from it. People need help and in a good society the better off help the worse off. But we must recognise that what the charity and its spokespeople ask for is not necessarily the wisest way of spending tax payers’ money. Our money.
The wisest way of spending tax payers’ money is to remove the causes of poverty. Opinions may vary on how that can or should be done, and that’s what political parties argue incessantly about, but if they divert money from that effort then it would be money spent unwisely. It would be like putting a sticking plaster on a severed artery for all the good it would do.
So, Most Revd and Rt Hon the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, would you like to apply that formidable (so we’re told) intellect of yours to tell us how to eradicate poverty, rather than telling us how to waste more tax payer's money? No, I thought not.
Now to other things. Thanks to the wonders of Amazon's tracking systems I can tell you that my latest book, The Girl I Left Behind Me, is rising rapidly up the sales rankings. Colour me chuffed. I don't know precisely how many copies have been sold, I won't know that until my publisher sends out the monthly report in January, but its clear from its ranking that it's doing well. If you haven't already purchased it then you might want to do so soon, before someone tells you the ending! Click on the 'Books' tab to find out more.