Poverty, Covid-19 and Hope

The Oral History Collective is part of a growing movement of researchers and civil society groups whose work shines a light on the misery inflicted by the UK Government’s welfare ‘reforms’ since 2010. Our Foodbank Histories research comes out of a belief that poverty has a past, and that the current rise of foodbanks needs to be understood in its historical context. This context also sheds light on the Government’s current policy approach to the Covid-19 pandemic, which is in alignment with their approach to social policy over the past decade. Indeed, the horror expressed by many over the Government’s initial (now rejected) ‘take it on the chin’ approach to Coronavirus is a familiar feeling for many on the front line of dealing with the fall-out of a wide range of social policies. In this blog post, Alison Atkinson-Phillips argues that the utilitarian beliefs of the 19th Century continue to have an impact today, and argues for a bit of hope.

The provision of food to the poor has a very long history in Europe, including in England where food was distributed as part of monastic charity from at least the early sixteenth century.  However, towards the end of the 18th century, debates around the distinction between independent and dependent poor emerged. Edmund Burke suggested that the word ‘poor’ should be reserved ‘for the sick and infirm, for orphan infancy, for languishing and decrepit old age’.

The 1832 Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws that was used to justify the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was informed by Jeremy Bentham’s ethical system of utilitarianism, usually understood as ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number’. While often seen as a (small l) liberal concept, utilitarianism also assumes that an individual will always operate in their own self-interest. In terms of welfare, this worldview suggests that if given the ‘choice’ between work and welfare, people would choose welfare provision. The result was the workhouse system, perhaps most famously depicted in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, created to ensure that only those most desperate would ask for help.

This early history is important because it set the liberal framework within which the British welfare state operates. According to Esping-Anderson (2000), there are three types of welfare state frameworks: liberal, conservative and social-democratic. Under the liberal model:

“They offer modest levels of income support, which goes mostly to poor and low-income people. The income benefits are usually tightly controlled by means tests, and there is often a level of stigma or shame associated with ‘going on the welfare’…The result is that, in liberal regimes, social and economic inequality is never seriously addressed or redressed. At best, the low-income earners are maintained in a state of austere poverty.” (Bessant et al 2006)

Another reason why this history is important, is because of the prevailing idea that the people will ‘take advantage’ of welfare systems unless they are actively discouraged from doing so. Ideas about the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor continue to influence how we think about welfare provision and under the Conservative Government of the last decade.

In response to the 2009 Global Financial Crisis, the UK Government implemented a policy of Austerity that was framed as the nation pulling together in a time of need, but was influenced by these ideas that people need to be discouraged from accessing welfare. The Welfare Reform Act 2012 and the introduction of benefit caps and Universal Credit since 2017 have been guided by an ethos of ‘making work pay’, which in practice is a return to the workhouse logic that social security provision should be made as unpleasant as possible. This is despite important research commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that reputes the idea of ‘cultures of worklessness’ among the unemployed.

There is a growing body of research into the impacts of these policies on people who are already marginalised in British: those who are mentally and physically disabled or suffer chronic illness, those with low levels of literacy and those who were already living in poverty before these changes came into effect are over-represented as clients of the foodbanks that have sprung up across the UK in the last decade. In 2013/14, a series of major reports were published by coalitions of civil society groups Oxfam, Church Action on Poverty, Child Poverty Action Group and Trussell Trust. The most substantial of these have worked with Trussell Trust to access client data. Perry et al (2014) conducted 40 in-depth interviews alongside administrative data and caseload analysis, while Loopstra and Lalor (2017) developed a large-scale survey administered by volunteers to clients across 18 Trussell Trust foodbanks, modelled on existing household surveys.

Kayleigh Garwaite’s embedded research as a volunteer at a foodbank in Stockton-on-Tees draws on an auto-ethnographic approach. All of this research was conducted before the roll-out of Universal Credit. At a local level, Cheetham et al conducted a qualitative study of claimants and staff on the impacts of Universal Credit. In December 2019, a new report on independent (non-Trussell Trust) foodbanks found that foodbanks are a post-2010 phenomenon which is “becoming embedded in the UK as a response to food insecurity” (Loopstra et al 2019).

This research adds up to a substantial body of evidence that:

  • UK social security provision is too low.
  • Welfare reforms over the past decade have negatively impacted some of the most vulnerable groups in society – specifically people with disabilities and single-parent families.
  • Chronic poverty (experienced by those on low income, both in work and out-of-work) leaves people unable to cope with ‘life shocks’, either financial or personal. 
  • Benefit delays and sanctions are ‘income shocks’ that people cannot cope with, and are a leading cause of food poverty. 
  • There is a strong link between mental ill-health and poverty.

In November 2018. The UN Special Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, visited the UK. His report identified key issues that are also reflected in this existing research, arguing that the introduction of Universal Credit, and the move to a ‘digital by default’ interface with government, are symptomatic of “a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering”. Alston continues:

“British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instil discipline where it is least useful, to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping with today’s world, and elevating the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest levels of British society.”

There is, however, cause to hope. Back in the mid 2010s, when a lot of the research mentioned above was being carried out, anti-poor sentiment was at its peak. This was partly due to the success of the Government’s austerity rhetoric and its argument that cuts to social welfare were necessary for the ‘greater good’. It was also, as Shildrick et al’s research demonstrates, influenced by ‘poverty porn’ tv shows such as Benefits Britain, which demonised the ‘undeserving poor’. However, by the time of our first Foodbank Histories interviews in 2018, this tide had turned. A key factor seems to have been the release of Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake with it sympathetic portrayal of everyman Dan who finds himself on benefits and then sanctioned through no fault of his own. Another factor has been increasingly sympathetic reporting of the growing number of people needing to access foodbanks.

The current Covid-19 epidemic is creating what John McCorry, CEO of Newcastle West End Foodbank describes as the “perfect storm”: more and more people needing to access Universal Credit, and experiencing their 5-week waiting period, while the supermarket supply chain breaks down and less food is available for redistribution (see recent Panorama). Commentary on the Johnson Government’s initial pandemic “herd immunity” strategy has focussed on the neoliberal mindset, arguing that decision-makers were guided by ‘Nudge theory‘. My argument is that the spirit of utilitarianism is less a conscious policy choice and more an underlying ethos that assumes people are operating from an underlying self-interest .

So where is my optimism in this? As more and more people need to access a system that has never worked efficiently, its horrors are becoming increasingly unpalatable. It is much easier to shake your head and do nothing about a broken system that only affected the ‘undeserving poor’ you don’t know. Much harder when the poor are your neighbour, your friend, your family, you. When I am Daniel Blake, suddenly the ‘greater good’ doesn’t seem so great.

More importantly, in the situation we find ourselves in, we watch again and again as people act outside of their own self-interest. NHS workers and volunteers put themselves in harms way, and mutual aid groups show that utility, or happiness, doesn’t always come from what is easy. There are lessons to be learned from Covid-19. My hope is that we learn that poverty is not a choice, and we really are all in this together.

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