Last week the Trussell Trust released figues about food bank uptake. The charity, just one of many organisations, including schools and local authorities, who have distributed free food during the pandemic, experiencec a 33% increase in the number of food parcels they distributed over the last year. Families with children were disproportionately affected.
The Trussell Trust says that food aid is not the solution to the problem. The Government’s response is to say that it is working on the jobs side of the equation, but work alone is not the only answer, given many on benefits in the past have been people in work. Many in low paid positions have had to supplement their earnings with tax credits, which have been subject to freezes and to all sorts of other changes which, for some, have made their finances much worse. The financial crisis of 2008 saw an increase in insecure, low paid jobs. This time round there has to be an awareness that that can only get people so far and is no preparation for a pandemic-style crisis or indeed any kind of crisis.
Moreover, unemployment levels are likely to continue at current levels and to rise when the furlough scheme ends. A better safety net is needed than currently exists. The Trussell Trust says the reason for the rise in people coming to it in the last year is the low level of benefits, the benefits cap policy and other benefit-related issues, many of them brought in since 2010 as part of austerity measures.
While the £20 uplift to Universal Credit [but not to legacy benefits] is welcome and needs to stay, wider benefits reform is clearly needed in tandem with a concerted plan to tackle low earnings, progression and job security, for instance, by implementing the shelved Taylor report on modern ways of working.
At some point soon, the Government is going to have to start paying back some of its borrowings over the last year. It cannot be those who are the poorest in society who are hit the hardest. It is in nobody’s interests to see a further widening of the huge social inequalities that the pandemic has laid bare.
One of the saddest bits of UK news that came out last week was a University of Kent study which found that, in the first wave of the pandemic, around 220,000 people thought they were eligible for Universal Credit but did not want to claim it. For some this was because they thought it would be too much hassle, but 27% did not claim it because of perceived stigma about asking for money they were entitled to. Nearly half of those who refused to claim benefits reported severe financial strain, resulting in missed rent payments or people skipping meals as well as increased mental health issues.
Older people and people not born in the UK felt the benefit stigma most strongly. That is surely an absolute indictment of the way the Government, enthusiastically backed by many parts of the media, have spoken about benefits claimants as part of the justification for austerity cuts over the last decade.
The Kent researchers say that the Government did act quickly to ensure many people who needed Universal Credit were able to get it in the early part of the crisis, but they fear that a significant number have missed out due to benefits stigma. They call on the Department for Work and Pensions to publish a ‘benefit take-up strategy’ to ensure that people can claim the right benefits as quickly as possible, correct misperceptions about the benefits system and attempt to address benefits stigma. Let’s not see a return of the same rhetoric that followed the last financial crisis.