First published in Institute of Opinion
No, not that Freud. While the therapeutic politics behind the food banks discussion has a lot to answer for, it is not to Sigmund but to his great-grandson Lord Freud that I refer.
As I recently discovered, despite the impression given by campaigners, the country is not witnessing depression-era levels of poverty. Nevertheless the numbers getting their meals from food banks has increased considerably, from tens of thousands to half a million in just a couple of years according to one estimate. As is widely recognised, this is largely the result of the abolition of the social fund, other benefit changes following welfare reform, more delays and sanctions in the payment of benefits; and the novel and dubious practice of job centres referring them rather than the usual practice of giving claimants an advance on their benefits. So while the people running them are right to suspect that food banks are effectively being drawn into a wider unofficial welfare system. The good news (if you can call it that) is that the extended queues does not mean that people have got much poorer and hungrier all of a sudden, and are lining up much as the poverty-stricken were outside the soup kitchens of 1930s America.
Lord Freud, a work and pensions minister and (worse) a wealthy former investment banker – did I mention he’s a Lord? – caused controversy last month by denying that the recent popularity in food banks had anything to do with the above. Using the logic of anti-roads campaigners he said that the high take-up in their use was simply a consequence of there being more of them. “If you put more food banks in, that is the supply” he said. “Clearly food from a food bank is by definition a free good and there’s almost infinite demand.” (A statement that could hardly have been better designed to trigger, as it did, the usual Labour Party soundbite about those nasty ‘out of touch’ Tories.) While his critics were right to criticise Freud for his ignorance of the impact of changes to the welfare landscape introduced by his department (not to mention the impact of the economic crisis on people’s standard of living), and the implication that the problem of poverty would be solved if food banks were all closed down; he also has a point.
While in most cases people’s sense of pride and self-respect – even today when the old working class values have been eroded – tends to trump the logic of the market; we are increasingly encouraged to regard ourselves as vulnerable, incapable of looking after ourselves and in need of ‘support’. The resultant growth of a therapuetic state to meet these new found needs is the inevitable result. So could it be that those numbers have also been increasing because more people are being sucked into a dependent relationship with the state, or in the case of food banks with the extended state of ‘charitable’ support? Certainly as both Freud and the prime minister have said, the increase in the use of food banks was already beginning to rise before these welfare changes were implemented, and even before the coalition government was formed; and the arguments presented by the food bank movement itself also point to what can only be described as a therapeutic turn.
The problem with food banks, says Nick Saul president and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada, is that they “let us and our governments off the hook for finding real economic and social policy-based solutions”. People, he says, become “passive recipients of food handouts” rather than active members of their community. Right, and right again. But Saul is sniffy about conventional food banks and the supposedly inferior fare provided by their supermarket donors; and doubly patronising because he thinks that those dependent on food handouts also need lifestyle lectures, whether its “nutrition initiatives for low income, pregnant women” or extra tuition for the no doubt neglected kids. Patrick Butler at The Guardian is similarly sympathetic with those schemes determined to distance themselves from the “food-bank mentality“. They should do more than just feed people, so the logic goes. They should help them to break free of their dependency too. So what makes these anti-food banks so much better? Their clients “receive counselling, debt advice and health advice each time they visit”.
While the sentiment may sound radical these schemes are actually more likely to further ingrain people’s dependency. The idea that what the poorest need is more intervention and support in order to reduce their dependence on … er, intervention and support, just doesn’t make any sense.
I’d prefer to take my food parcel and go thank you very much.