16 Feb 2011

Food poverty on the rise as recession hits home

Political Editor

In 21st century Britain, you would not expect people across the country to need food handouts to survive – particularly those with jobs. But that’s exactly what Political Editor Gary Gibbon finds.

Food poverty on the rise as recession bites (Getty)

You might normally associate Salisbury with cathedrals and green wellies. But Channel 4 News visited for another reason: to find out about foodbanks.

The Trussell Trust in Salisbury is one of dozens of US-style charity operations that have grown up unannounced around the country, handing out parcels of food to people unable to put a meal on the table.

Tens of thousands each year get food parcels – mostly referred by GPs, health visitors, police, schools.


But there is a new phenomenon being reported by the foodbanks which throws light on life in Britain for many today. They say their biggest growing cohort of people coming for help getting food on the table are people who either have an income, or people in a household where there is an income.

In-work poverty was a growing phenomenon in the UK – the latest estimate is that 53 per cent of working age households in poverty have at least one working adult. This is around 2.3m households, after factoring in housing costs. What the foodbank experience suggests is that these individuals are finding they plummet into crisis situations suddenly and more frequently.

One woman who has been forced to use the foodbanks in Salisbury told Channel 4 News: “Because I’ve always worked, I never expected to be in that position where I would be so grateful for somebody else giving us some food.”

Sometimes, the emergency happens because agency work suddenly dries up – a construction worker Channel 4 News spoke to can be on £800 one month and £170 the next.

He said: “In the climate we’re in at the moment, sometimes I’m doing it on a regular basis and it’s difficult and I find it embarrassing. You just feel so small.”

The fixed outgoings are geared more to the better income and are stretched to destruction by the plummeting one. To some, the labour market flexibilities introduced – starting in the 1980s – seem to be showing a lot of flexiblity in one direction. Estimates on the number of agency workers across the country vary from around 260,000 (the Government’s Labour Force Survey) to 1.25m (the agency trade body the Recruitment and Employment Confederation).

Crisis situation

Other factors that seem to trigger crisis situations for the working poor are self-employed individuals whose income is erratic, and workers forced onto lower working hours by their employers.

The latest National Institute of Economic and Social Research revealed that 97 per cent of the jobs created since the recession ended are part-time.

But the Department for Work and Pensions’ figures breakdown seems to show that 1.2m of them actually wanted to work more hours but were being kept at lower working hours to keep the company ticking over or to keep company costs down. As unemployment figures underline, it’s not the right time to go hunting in the job market, so people stay put and hope for better times.

For some needing food parcels the problem is accumulated debts and credit card payments eating into their disposable income. The personal debt figures for the UK tell you how widespread that must be. What all said was that the costs of petrol, food and rent – the basics – are having a lethal effect.

Political Editor Gary Gibbon said: “Tax credits don’t seem to protect these people. The market doesn’t want to pay them at the rate for the hours they want to work. Politicians have told workers that getting into work is the promised land, but what if it isn’t? And what if the economic recovery doesn’t float all boats?”