Recently I spoke with the manager of a foodbank in South London. She didn’t offer to go on the record but I afterwards made a few notes on what she was saying:
- They have recently seen a big increase in people coming to them, many due to delays in benefit, the abolition of crisis loans and other changes to the beneftis system.
- The manager made it clear that she thought they were being forced to take on the DWP’s work. This was not a role they wanted to take on and they didn’t think they should have to take it on. They have become a part of the social security system when they only wanted to be a final backup for when the social security failed.
- Not only have the numbers coming for food increased but those coming are now in more desperate straits than before. They regularly have people breaking down crying as they describe their situations. There is, and I quote, a level of ‘despair’ that was not present previously among those coming for food. Many people no longer believe that their situation will improve, that they will be provided with a dignified life if they have to live on social security, or that they will be able to get jobs to get them off it.
- This has now become so bad that the food bank, which is part of a wider community project that relies on volunteers, is now having trouble keeping people. Volunteers are wanting to do something positive in the community but working in the foodbank is just grim and depressing: volunteers don’t have the tools to deal with it, and they know they aren’t really helping the people, only stopping them from starving for a few days.
The dismantling of the social security system is something I won’t comment on much, except to say I think the main purpose of it is to lower wages, i.e. make most of us poorer. We also shouldn’t forget that people falling close to starvation is happening at the same time as more than a third of homes purchased in the last year were bought in cash.
The dislike of volunteers for their new role is interesting. Clearly volunteers at the Citizens Advice Bureau face similar problems but they have a lot more training, and behind that a lot more public funding as well as well-established third sector funding (both now being squeezed). David Cameron’s stillborn ‘Big Society’ idea is going to come back to haunt him if instead of volunteers feeling they are building good things they feel they are just mopping up the misery created by government policy. It would be pretty ironic if the disgruntled and underfunded volunteers of the UK end up calling for Cameron’s head.