Food banks ought to be shocking in a country as rich as the UK, and a decade ago they were. In 2012, when the Guardian launched a Breadline Britain series, the idea of hunger as a widespread social problem was an unfamiliar one. Then, this newspaper sought to challenge the narrative being promoted by David Cameron’s government that jobs offered a sure route out of poverty. In fact, research showed that 3.6m households with at least one adult in work were just “one small push from penury”.
It is a grim indictment of the policies pursued over the past 10 years that the food banks opened under austerity have not gone away, but multiplied. Currently, the UK has more than 2,500 of them. Low pay, low benefit levels and a lack of affordable housing have made it impossible for millions of people to do anything other than live hand-to-mouth. Reports of adults skipping meals, and pupils turning up at school hungry, are frequent. Now, due to a cost of living crisis made far worse by Tory incompetence, the situation has grown graver still. Nearly one in five low-income families experienced food insecurity in September, new data from the Food Foundation shows. Nearly 10 million adults and 4 million children, including around half of all universal credit claimants, didn’t have enough to eat or skipped meals.
Public awareness and distress about this domestic humanitarian crisis has focused first and foremost on children. A campaign led by the footballer Marcus Rashford in 2020 pushed the government to change its mind and offer free meals during school holidays. But this was a short-term fix to a deep and ongoing problem. The Child Poverty Action Group says that about 800,000 children living in poverty are being denied free school meals because they do not meet criteria stating that parents or carers must earn less than £7,400 a year. This means that some children are arriving at school hungry and without the prospect of a healthy lunch. As with other impacts of the cost of living crisis, those in families with three or more children are most severely affected due to benefit cuts and caps unfairly targeted at them.
Rising hunger is just one aspect of a wider inflation crisis. The package of support with fuel costs offered by the government remains in place until April, but energy, rent and other costs are all putting the poorest families under severe strain. While millions of other Britons have benefited from a decades-long property boom, which gives at least some protection from the current price shocks (especially if they are mortgage-free), those without assets have rarely been more brutally exposed.
In the decades since the postwar consensus was shattered and finance deregulated, we have become habituated to extreme wealth. Huge disparities in income and opportunities are nothing new. But a society in which such large numbers of people lack basic necessities is one in which something has gone badly wrong. Eligibility for free school mealsshould be expanded so that more children qualify, and benefits must be raised in line with inflation. The rise of hunger over the past decade shames not only the prime minister but also her predecessors and her party.