Why Freud might have a point about food banks

lossy-page1-293px-Unemployed_men_queued_outside_a_depression_soup_kitchen_opened_in_Chicago_by_Al_Capone,_02-1931_-_NARA_-_541927.tifFirst 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.

Why the Rising Interest in Food Banks

First published in Huffington Post

If you believe the headlines people are going hungry in Britain today. The only reason they are not starving to death is because soup kitchens, food banks and other charitable schemes are springing up to serve those in most desperate need. Indeed the numbers using food banks increased nearly three-fold last year on the previous year to more than 350,000 according to one charitable food provider determined to raise the nation’s awareness of the ‘hunger on our doorstep’. A consortium of charities has even accused the government of being in danger of breaching its obligations under the UN economic and social rights convention if it goes on cutting public services and benefits. According to Fareshare, an organisation that redistributes left-overs from supermarkets and other retailers, it is supporting more people than ever via a growing number of charities; and providing meals for an estimated 44,000 people a day (an increase of 16% on last year). Sainsbury’s alone has provided 3.2 million meals in the last two years. Which, given that the supposedly evil supermarkets are blamed for everything from failing farmers to the demise of the high street, may come as something of a surprise.

But scratch the surface a little beneath these shocking headlines and you might find you come to a rather different view. First of all you learn that part – probably a large part – of the rising demand for food banks etc is a consequence of welfare reform and the way benefits are being paid (or, indeed, not paid). With the abolition of the social fund on which the most desperate had previously relied, and an apparent reluctance on the part of the DWP and Jobcentres to pay them an advance on their benefits; they are being referred to local authorities, charities and food banks instead. All in the name of building the Big Society you understand. According to the Trussell Trust, one of the major food crisis charities, over half of the recipients of their food parcels did so because their benefits had been delayed, cut or stopped altogether. Indeed, this has been raised in parliament and even pointed out (albeit further down the page) by those who nevertheless claim that there exists something approaching Dickensian levels of poverty in Britain today. I know times are hard, with everything from food and fuel price hikes to high unemployment having a part to play, but even today’s poorest are not facing Hard Times!

And its not just Lefty-Liberal do-gooders twisting the facts to suit their anti-austerity agenda. The Tory/Liberal austerity-implementing government apparently feel compelled to invent food crises too. A few months ago agriculture minister David Heath made the bizarre World War II-citing claim that before too long we could be ‘digging for survival‘. Because we are dependent on imports for 40% of our food, so the logic goes, we are at risk of I know not what catastrophes that could make us dependent on hastily dug allotments. That we live in a modern world and depend for our comforts on the benefits of an international division of labour is, in reality, no bad thing. The notion that there is a big problem of food security – fueled by periodic scares about everything from terrorism and global warming, to there being too many people to feed, or too much horse in the food chain – is baseless. But it all adds to the fantasy of impending food-related doom.

That is not to say that there aren’t people facing great hardship and that this is not set to get significantly worse. With the annual rise in benefits to be no more than 1% a year from now on, an estimated 50,000 households expected to lose about £93 a week when the benefit cap is eventually rolled out; and 660,000 households seeing their benefit cut by around £14 a week with the introduction of the hated bedroom tax – things are clearly going to get much tougher for the poorestBirmingham City Council, for instance, has mapped the miserable impact of welfare reform on some of its already hard-up residents. But the real shocker here is not that the poor are going hungry – they’re not. It’s that people are living in a seemingly permanent dependency on the state and on the no-less dependent charity sector, without anybody apparently able to challenge the view that they are anything more than pitiable creatures barely able to feed themselves. The political class are utterly clueless with not the first idea about how they might do something about the economic crisis, other than cutting away at public expenditure. And campaigners, instead of holding them to account, prefer patronising the supposed victims as a vulnerable bunch of inadequates.

Payday Loans and Gambling: Protecting the Poor from Themselves

First published in Huffington Post

Maybe I’ve just become too horribly middle class to care or too suburban to notice, but it seems that the Dickensian poor are still with us. Fortunately there are charitable souls out there, at least in the thoroughly proletarian Labour Party and left-liberal commentariat, who have found time in their busy lives to pity them. Whether it’s calling for kindly interventions from the coalition government to put an end to the way these helpless saps are tricked by evil types into entering their betting shops; or calling for kindly interventions from one of its Quangos to put an end to those other evil types who shamelessly (sic) offer them loans they couldn’t hope to pay back. Or maybe, being a rather sensitive soul, I just read The Guardian a little too much?

According to research conducted for The Guardian the poor are so dazzled by ‘high speed, high stakes gambling machines’ that something must be done to rescue them and quick. In places where most people have jobs they spend £1.4bn on these these fixed odds betting terminals (FOBT). Compare this with the areas where they are so poor and workless that they are helplessly in thrall to these horrendous contraptions and shoving £5.6bn into them! The great and the good from Mary ‘retail guru’ Portas to the kindly and not at all aristocratic Hilary Benn are appalled by them, as are right-thinking comrades of the workless at the calculatedly nasty John Redwood MP. They are rightly outraged at his suggestion that the poor ‘have time on their hands’ and are stupid enough to believe that they can get rich quick with a bit of gamblers’ luck. How patronising!

More seriously … I hope you noted the touch of sarcasm so far … there has been much up-in-armsness about Payday loans. Citizens Advice (whatever happened to the Bureaux?) has urged the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) to suspend the licences of four major lenders who, it says, ‘are behaving as a law unto themselves’ with their fees, charges and harassment of customers. No joking matter, of course. According to National Debtline they received double the number of calls – 20,000 of them – in 2012 as they did the year previous on matters relating to these loans. Like Citizens Advice the Money Advice Trust that runs the Debtline has called for the OFT to intervene where these companies are not sticking to ‘responsible lending’ practices. This month the government, under pressure to ‘do something’, has announced it will work with that other Quango the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the OFT’s ‘tougher’ successor Quango with regards Payday loans the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), to clamp down on lenders that ‘lure’ customers into levels of indebtedness that are beyond their modest means.

And fair enough you might say. Even if you accept that gamblers only have themselves to blame for their debts, this is a miserable state of affairs for anybody just trying to make ends meet. But perhaps we should refer back to Redwood on this one too. However revolting his view might be about the propensity of the poor for gambling, he at least allows that they might have the potential to become rich (or at least less poor) if they didn’t waste their time in this way. Those supposedly defending the poor are far more patronising and illiberal in their insistence that the machines and the betting shops be made less numerous and less accessible to them. The assumption being that they really are lazy and feckless and at the mercy of big all-powerful corporations; and that each of those jumped-up one arm bandits ‘sucks money from the poorest communities’ as Diane Abbott puts it. The same goes for Payday loans. A more sober view might first consider whether a frequenting of betting shops and a resorting to ‘short term, high cost’ loans might have something to do with the economic crisis we’re in. National Debtline recorded an increase in calls about these loans of more than 4000% – coincidentally the rate at which some unscrupulous lenders are reportedly lending – since the recession began in 2007.

But even that isn’t the nub of it. Beyond the desperation that might drive people to take on debts they can ill afford, or place bets they might not otherwise place, it is also worth asking who is really responsible for those decisions? The betting shop or the firm that owns the machine? The ‘irresponsible’ lender looking to maximise their return? No. To blame these no doubt socially-irresponsible and super-profit making outfits for the actions of their customers is to rob people of their dignity as autonomous individuals capable of running their own lives. Which is, in my view, a good deal worse than what they might lose as a result of their own foolishness having an extravagant flutter too many or even borrowing money at an extortionate rate. By seeking to deny people even the opportunity to make up their own minds or to be responsible for their own actions, and instead portraying them as victims of forces beyond their control, these commentators and policy-makers are degrading us all. Most of us would rather be faced with the world according to John Redwood, however contemptuously framed, than be told no less contemptuously that we need protecting from our own worst instincts. In fact, I’d put money on it.