The Food Bank: A Safety-Net in Place of Welfare Security in Times of Austerity and the Covid-19 Crisis

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society by Dave Beck and Hefin Gwilym. Click here to access the article.

The UK is poised to enter a crisis in the cost of living. This is, however, not a new issue – it is one that has been rising, albeit steadily, for the last decade. Driving this period of ‘want’ is the confluence of several major social policy issues that have combined to make life for many unbearable: the hollowed-out incomes of the salariat; the precarity of the ‘gig-economy’ worker; and the interminable struggle of surviving on ever-diminishing social security. Each of these exclusively occupies an individualised association with relative and absolute poverty. Arguably, all these financial dilemmas have been slowly building as capitalism and neoliberalism find common ground. As they have done so, three recent and associated crises have shaken the socio-political and economic safety of living in a high-income nation: the Great Recession, Brexit and covid-19. This can be understood as the ‘Decade of Austerity’.

In our article we argue that these economic shocks have played a significant role in stimulating the growth of the emergency food aid sector in the UK, and that food banks as a new form of social security are an inadequate response to poverty. We argue this within a backdrop of long-termism as an approach to social policy, insofar as the work of William Beveridge in the 1940s specifically aimed to tackle ‘Want’, or poverty, through an adequate minimum of social security. Yet, as we have seen throughout recent decades, the ability of social security to protect people from Want has been woefully inadequate. This has been a political rather than economic decision, emanating from neoliberalism’s preoccupation with a residual welfare state, and accentuated by the credit crunch crisis and subsequent recession, Brexit, and the covid-19 pandemic. At the time of writing the cost of living crisis is making the situation even worse.

The approach taken is to evidence that neoliberalism encourages a reduced and residual approach to welfare provisioning. We argue that this has been facilitated through the introduction of the ‘Big Society’, a community organised safety-net approach smoothing the withdrawal of the welfare state. This is done through highlighting the growth of the food bank sector across Wales, as we consider food banksemblematic of the Big Society in action. As food banks have become common place, and associated with the provision of emergency food aid, understanding the role they now occupy within our welfare system has never been more important. This role has been rapidly increasing over the last decade, especially as charitable organisations inevitably feel the pull to provide when Government fails. 

This decade long period of austerity saw the introduction of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 which brought with it changes to the amount and delivery mechanism of social security, such as the introduction of monthly payments under Universal Credit and the Bedroom Tax, both of which seriously undervalued the social security element of the original Beveridgian system. What is clear is that as people lost valuable income through welfare retrenchment, the food bank became a vital lifeline for households struggling to get enough food. 

The article provides a visual representation of both when and where food banks felt the need to open, reflecting the deep pockets of deprivation across Wales. Starting with the first Welsh food bank in Newport in 1998, we trace their slow development under New Labour mapping a total of 16 food banks after 13 years of power. We also mapped the rise of food banks under the Conservative-led Coalition Government of Cameron and Clegg, evidencing that these 16 food banks grew in five years of the Coalition to a total of 160. We also evidence the impact of social security welfare reform, writ-large, and the impact that the Welfare Reform Act 2012 had in shaping the food bank landscape. Our evidence points towards the link between food bank numbers and welfare reform showing that the highest number of new food bank openings (50) came in 2012/2013, a direct correlation with the introduction of the Welfare Reform Act 2012.

As food banks rapidly became established across the whole of the UK, they also became increasingly normalised too. This process of normalisation fits well with neoliberalism as the charitable position of food banks is exploited by the government, and food banks are encouraged to provide free access to food and fill the void. We understand this as a secondary safety-net, and one that has become open to corporate philanthropy with several underpinning motives such as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), but also one which seriously ignores the root causes of poverty and neglects the role of government to protect its citizens adequately.  

Acting as a lifeline, food banks have now become embedded as part of, not simply the charitable landscape of food aid, but welfare more generally as they now have become a focal point for signposting services. What is more, the food bank lifeline became stretched, almost to breaking point during 2020 as we saw the far-reaching impact of the covid-19 pandemic pushing more people to destitution. The UK’s largest network of food banks – the Trussell Trust – provided 1.9 million parcels of emergency food aid during the fiscal year 2019-2020 (Trussell Trust, 2020), and the independent sector are estimated to have provided an additional 354,613 parcels between February and November 2020.

We conclude that the years of austerity and the impact of covid have shown that food banks are no longer the sticking plaster they were once thought to be, but that they are now an accepted safety-net when the official safety-net no longer provides.

About the authors

Dave Beck is Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Salford.

Hefin Gwilym is Lecturer in Social Policy at Bangor University.


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