Autumn Review 2014
Not so long ago, at the beginning of this year. here at CATCH, we felt rather embattled.
We were going into the second half of our first year of operation. It was clear that there was a need locally for what we were trying to do, and that there was some support in the community for us as we did it.
But as our experience lengthened, and perhaps particularly after the local Job Centre started sending people to us, so did our understanding of just how bad things were for many people in Cwmtawe – and how much of that hardship was fairly clearly due to deliberate Westminster policy at various levels. We felt we had to bear witness – it was in fact part of our mission statement that we should do so. We had set up the website. And yet, inevitably, actually running the food bank took up most of available volunteer time, and the publishing and campaigning aspect came a poor second.
It was a David and Goliath situation, a recipe for both bitter anger, and frustration.
As we approach the last quarter of 2104, there are, perhaps, some crumbs of comfort. The actual situation hasn’t changed for the better (see previous blog, re Job Centre withdrawal from cooperation). But there are perhaps some reasons to feel that the terms of public perception and debate are beginning to shift.
It is, for example, beginning to approach accepted wisdom, however much the Westminster government fights it, that we are still in the longest squeeze of general living standards for 150 years. And even the government’s own watchdogs have this month reported that child poverty has increased again dramatically (even though, again, ministers pop up on TV to deny it) and is set to get worse – see https://www.gov.uk/government/news/state-of-the-nation-2014-report-published. There have been several useful interventions from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Mosty recently, for example, look at http://www.jrf.org.uk/blog/2014/09/sanctions “Benefits sanctions are adding to bleak prospects for young people ” by Dr Beth Watts, who is a Research Fellow the Institute for Social Policy, Housing, Environment and Real Estate, Heriot-Watt University. She is currently working on an ESRC-funded project exploring the ethics and effectiveness of welfare conditionality.
The very day I am writing this, The News Statesman has made available online a long and thoughtful article on the whole food bank phenomenon – and while some may regard the New Statesman as ‘one of the usual suspects’, the original source of the article is not – it is by James Harrison, Associate Professor in the School of Law at the University of Warwick, and Co-Director of the Centre for Human Rights in Practice, and was originally published in the magazine Lacuna. Find it at http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/10/foodbank-dilemma.
On the ground, however, the situation remains as challenging as ever. Our experience at CATCH is that there is a significant minority within the local community, whose circumstances appear to be ‘normal’, in that they are householders, and perhaps parents of children in local schools, and yet, in fact they are clinging on, just, in terms of keeping their domestic show on the road, from one week to the next. And inevitably, some in fact fall through the now attenuated safety nets we once took for granted. Relationships fracture, tenancies are lost, couples split and individuals become homeless. When your income is less than you need, ‘capital’ of all kinds is quickly exhausted, and life becomes bitterly, desperately, hand to mouth. Once you are this far ‘down’, there are almost no levers you can work to improve your situation. Once there was what we called a welfare system – remember ‘Social Security’ ? To a large extent, the levers have been hi-jacked, and the system is being used for quite different purposes.
Another challenge we face is how to relate to what might be called the ‘Rowntree poor’. CATCH recently had an appeal day at our local Tesco, and the volunteers all remarked on the warmth of the response we received from the vast majority of shoppers. People knew about CATCH, and were happy to support us with donated goods. There is still work to be done, however, to cross-apply this level of approval into it being ‘all right’ to come to CATCH for help, or to persuade your son or daughter, niece or grandson, neighbour or friend, to do so. And it’s a task where it’s hard to strike the right tone and find the right ways of reaching out.
And the fact remains that so much of all of this is the outcome of government policy and calculated politics. It could have been otherwise, and it urgently needs to be otherwise.