The other day the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published its latest work on the impact of welfare reform. And not surprisingly, JRF paint a depressing picture:
...welfare reform may end up making tenants more, not less, dependent, and certainly more vulnerable. Cutbacks in support make people on low incomes, in work and out, more vulnerable to debt, risk of eviction and shortage of necessities, necessities, so they rely on food banks and other emergency support.
This is not the place to criticise JRF's methodology - it repeats what I see as an approach that places being well-informed above quantitative accuracy. However, the research reminds us of an ongoing debate around the impact of welfare reforms on our society, specific groups within welfare recipients (e.g. the disabled, social housing tenants) and whether poverty has increased.
We saw another report - some research into food banks (I'll point out that the methodology here is a great example of presenting opinion as research). Again the criticism is telling:
...Lambie-Mumford's new study...says the rise in demand for charity food is a clear signal "of the inadequacy of both social security provision and the processes by which it is delivered".
It seems to me that the subsequent debate (and I'm with the DWP, asking the opinion of 25 people, however well-informed they might be, doesn't help understand the nature or scale of a problem) is conducted by a process where I say 'yep' and you say 'nope'. Or more precisely, one set of folk are saying; 'these reforms are working', while another set claim they're making things worse.
It remains a fact that food aid provision in the UK has grown over the past decade and that this reflects a growth in need for this kind of aid. However, when some people suggest that the 'need' might be in part created by the provision of food aid they should not be dismissed out of hand. It seems possible that this might be the case and it doesn't detract from the observation that much of the need is entirely genuine.
Part of the problem here is that (again this is entirely understandable) we have focused on what we see as a problem rather than on the somewhat secondary issue of evaluation - Lambie-Mumford et al acknowledge this:
At the time of the research there was no systematic peer-reviewed evidence from the UK on the reasons or immediate circumstances leading people to seek food aid
So, in the lack of real evidence of what drives demand for food aid (and food banks specifically), we fall back on the views of the well-informed - those working in the food banks:
The factors identified by these organisations as important drivers leading people to seek food aid include both immediate problems which had led to sudden reduction in household income (two examples often cited by these organisations were job losses and problems associated with social security payments), and on-going, underpinning circumstances (such as continual low household income and indebtedness) which can no longer support purchase of sufficient food to meet household needs.
In our debate therefore we need to distinguish between the two types of 'need'. Short-term need (anecdotally this seems to be the biggest part of demand) goes away - we shouldn't defend the bureaucratic uselessness that sits at the bottom of the issue but it should resolve itself. And we should also recognise that food aid represents an admirable response from the wider society to need within its midst.
When we discuss whether welfare reform works, this short-term problem, shouldn't be our focus. Rather we should look at the persistence of low income amongst food aid recipients. If the problems relate to welfare reform - most commonly changes to housing benefit or the benefits cap - then we need to understand why this is so. On one level the best response is to get a job since this ends the cap and 'single room supplement' but this isn't always as easy as it sounds especially for someone who hasn't worked since god knows when.
Another option is to reduce other outgoings (getting rid of debts is a good start but again rather easier said than done) such as housing costs. But again this is not as straightforward as it seems. What appears entirely missing is the support to get these families from their current unsustainable poverty to a more sustainable, directed future. The stress on human intervention (mostly aimed at moving people from welfare dependence to work) ignores the impact that short-term financial intervention might produce.
I've said before that we need to have a better debate about poverty than the one we're having right now. This debate is confused by the lack of clear statistical analysis of the problem's scale (made worse by the unquestioning reporting of qualitative work as if is absolute proof) as well as by a continued confusion between 'poverty' and 'inequality'. I'm more bothered about the fact that some in our society lack for food - real poverty - than by contested measures of inequality or questionable arguments claiming inequality lies at the root of all societal sins.
Our response to poverty is made worse - much worse - by our inability to agree that poverty is absolute material deprivation not some economic assessment determined by the Duke of Westminster's wealth. We rightly include things in our meaning of 'absolute material deprivation' that wouldn't have been there in times past (or indeed in a similar assessment in Nigeria or Bangladesh) and depriving people of pleasures - TV, beer, cigarettes - is as much as aspect of poverty as depriving them of food, shelter or clothing. But poverty - as JRF show with their minimum income calculation - isn't something we assess relative to the earnings of others but something we determine by describing what people shouldn't go without.
I'd like some more research - rigorous, quantitative research - that starts to answer the questions we all ask - what's driving the need for food aid, how many people are in a state of absolute material deprivation and whether changes to welfare benefits are making matters worse. Right now this information seems (other than the ever creative DWP figures) lacking resulting in the debate being more about anecdote and political knock-about than a search for ways to eliminate the need for food aid.