Why I am sick of hearing about “community responses” to poverty- putting a plaster over the stab wound of precarity

by Kate Haddow

Recently I attended a lecture given by Julia Unwin the chair of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. It is one of her final public appearances as Chair of the charity after a rocky ten years in charge. I was hoping it would be a one to remember and it would, sadly for the wrong reasons. I was waiting in a jam-packed lecture hall full of hope, aspirations and promise that she would deliver a motivational speech that would provide me with answers and solutions to help curtail UK poverty. Her lecture left a bitter taste in my mouth. Although Julia is a talented public speaker, her content did not match.

Her lecture opened with an open call for community responses to poverty and about how local communities can help lessen the blow of poverty. Julia wanted us to rally to the cause and recall the times of good community spirit, in a time where your neighbours knew you by your first name. Don’t know about anyone else but I happen to know my neighbours very well. I remember looking at the time on my phone every 15 minutes or so thinking when is she going to talk about Cameron or May and their minions and never mind community responses to poverty, what about government responses to poverty? A full hour passed and the lecture drew to a close and not one mention of central government and their austerity politics. As Julia fled her podium and people flocked for the exits, I stared into the black dregs of my cold, empty coffee cup, feeling let down and asking ‘was that it?’

The term community is a slippery one with multifaceted meaning, and I feel it is being used as a super glue response to poverty, I feel we need to be careful using the word community because is it really just a euphemism for inadequate social provision?

I am finding this term ‘community responses’ everywhere, quite frankly it’s like bloody chewing gum on paving slabs and just like chewing gum, it is sticking, it’s emerging into our everyday conversations around welfare and poverty.

It is a slogan that is becoming more normalised in recent years, which I find alarming, you just need to nip to Tesco’s and see a large basket with the words ‘help your community’ stuck on it, you know its destined for the foodbank. This transference from state responsibility to local communities and charities is obviously a product of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ agenda, emphasising individual responsibility as the government retrenches welfare.

The thing is Dave and Julia, communities are responding to poverty as they have always done and they are doing a fantastic job, I have witnessed and live in a tight knit deprived community, which is laced with acts of kindness and selflessness, but is it really their place? Do communities have sufficient resources to help end poverty? It is looking unlikely. A primary example of a “community” responses to poverty is the foodbank ran nationally by the Trussel Trust and dispersed in communities’ throughout the UK, food is donated by locals, and the foodbank itself is run by local people. Having worked with foodbanks for my masters dissertation and now for my PhD, I would say I have a love/hate relationship with the foodbank and their responses to poverty.

Despite popular belief you cannot just turn up and demand a food parcel, you have to be referred by an agency, generally a doctor or social worker. This can be an incredibly embarrassing process for those in need of referral and people often delay this process due to the stigma and shame. The whole process is laced in paperwork and checks, and it is very complicated. I understand they are a charity and have limited resources, but it is almost a way of criminalising the poor.

My issue is the foodbank and others are just an immediate response to poverty, it’s like this- you’re hungry and there is not a scrap of food in the house, no problem the foodbank will supply you with packets of pasta and Heinz soup to help you. But what about when you leave the foodbank? Who is helping you then, when you return to the cold house, when you are trying desperately to make that can of stew ‘do you’ for a few days? Who has your back then?

It seems clear that charitable and community responses are not enough, they neither have the resources nor manpower to help end poverty. I remember my first meeting with my local foodbank; I didn’t know what to expect inside. The room was set out with a set desks covered in pretty table cloths and biscuits ready for people who would be using the foodbank later that day. It looked surprisingly nice, a bit like a tea party actually. Then I saw a table which looked rather sparse with a few packets of tampons and sanitary towels splayed out, the volunteer noticed me my eyes examining the table and she remarked ‘oh you have spotted our luxury table then!’ I then noticed a small corner full of toys for children visiting the foodbank, my heart sank a little at the thought of children being there.

The volunteer I spoke to made me a cup of coffee and insisted I take a biscuit, but I’m not going to lie, I felt guilty about taking a jammy dodger when I wasn’t in need. We had a good chat and few things crept up. She was very keen to tell me the foodbank is only a crisis point and that they cannot cope with dependency arising from the current problems we are facing. This lady had been a volunteer for many years, she talked about the times before the nationwide explosion of foodbank use, and how the sole purpose of the foodbank is to offer a lifeline, to see you through till payday after an unexpected bill. She explained that she now sees the same people coming back, facing the same problems and that the foodbank can’t cope with these long-term welfare changes.

I asked the volunteer if she ever thought about the people who came to the foodbank after they left, was she ever moved emotionally by their problems? She swiftly and bluntly replied no, stating it is not good to get emotionally involved in clients lives. I would make a poor volunteer; I could not simply watch someone leave the foodbank without wanting to know would they be ok in a few weeks’ time. Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with showing our emotions, our ability to empathise and sympathise is what make us human. My emotions have always motivated my research, I am angry and saddened by the social injustice some people face, and I am hoping to prompt change. It makes me sad to think people seem emotionless regarding poverty and seem to think it’s the way of the world, an ancient evil we can never slay.

I couldn’t help but ask the volunteers and the manager of the foodbank if they were willing to seek change actively and challenge the austerity politics that were the root cause of foodbank use. They looked at me blankly and stated they were just a charity; there wasn’t anything they could do. It was like speaking to customer services on the telephone at Vodafone to hear after 40 minutes ‘sorry not my department’. I ask, whose responsibility is it to end poverty? The government are pointing the finger at charities, and local organisations and charities seem to be pointing the finger right back.

I am not criticising the foodbank itself or its selfless network of volunteers. I feel they are doing an amazing job, helping people who have no means to feed themselves. They and other charitable bodies are becoming a crucial part of the welfare state in recent years, despite government’s rejection of this notion. But I am criticising the limited response by charities and foodbanks, to the often complicated situations people are finding themselves in and a lack of willingness to challenge the government. I feel like too many people think “oh its ok we have foodbanks, they can help you out”, but we are missing the point, why in 2017 do foodbanks even exist and why the hell are over one million people needing to use them?

So I ask what happens when that three-day food parcel runs out, or your allotted three vouchers have all been used up? Poverty is a very complex web, and I have news for you, it doesn’t get solved at the foodbank. It would seem no one, neither government nor local charities, want to accept responsibility for the long-term issues of poverty and social insecurity. It seems we are just happy to stick a small plaster on a very large wound and hope it sticks.

Kate Haddow is a PhD Student at Teesside University. You can follow her on twitter here.