It’s that time of year again when Twitter does Live Below the Line (and spends the three weeks before emailing me to ask if I have any tips for them.) I’m actually pretty short on tips, but I’m very very full of opinions on the subject and I’m pretty sure none of them are what you expect from someone who writes on food poverty.
I really don’t like the campaign and thus won’t be taking part, this year or any other year. I’ve spent the last 15 years working toward not having to count every penny I spend on food and I find it upsetting to be asked to go back to it even for a day or two. I think at best, the campaign is feelgood charity and at worst, it’s poverty tourism. I think you’d be better to be more engaged with the issues for another 360 days of the year and donate the cost of a coffee or muffin every day or every other day than do the 5 day challenge. That’s not say that individuals don’t do fantastic things with it, but that I dislike the tone of the campaign itself.
I find the Live Below the Line website a bit of a masterclass in excitably vague promises, telling us about the extreme poverty 1.2 billion people across the world live in. There’s no mention of why this is, from war, migration, capitalism, corruption, lack of women’s rights or over population. There’s mention of the charities they partner with to direct the fundraising, but very little explanation of how this will be done unless you go to every single charity’s website and dig for it. I’d prefer a few more facts myself.
I’m aware that anything that raises awareness for issues is valuable for orgs and the £5 for 5 days strapline does that but I find it actually dodges most of the issues associated with food poverty by picking 5 days over 7 days. This allows people to do it Monday to Friday in the office with lots of support and make an event of it. I can imagine it could even be quite fun doing it this way which is nice.
Which is exactly what food poverty isn’t. It’s not nice. It’s frightening and shitty and isolating. It excludes you from society and it shames and stigmatises you and your family. It has no end in sight and it’s not something you can easily discuss with people. I’m not suggesting Live Below the Line mimics the neverending vibe of poverty and like the Hotel California once you join, you can never leave, but I do think a lot more could be achieved by making it 7 days instead.
It’s not fun to have strictly budget all your meals, hoping that nothing will go off before you were expecting it or that the offers you were relying on have sold out, but it’s the moments when you have to forgo socialising because of your food budget that really hurts. You can’t go out for birthday drinks, make your kid a cake, meet friends for coffee, go to their house for dinner because you need to bring wine and you can’t invite people to yours because they probably expect more than toast and custard creams for their tea. A 7 day challenge would show a little bit more of that social aspect of poverty.
You’re probably thinking this is nitpicking and fairly irrelevant in the UK, not like those people who live on £1 per day in far flung foreign lands, but sadly it’s not. Food poverty in the UK is on the rise and with the massive increase in benefit sanctions, cuts and delays, zero hour contracts and wage freezes, more and more people here routinely only have just over £1 per day for food.
A 24 year old on Job Seeker’s Allowance gets £57.35 per week. From that if they live in rented accomodation, they will have pay any Housing Benefit top ups since the Broad Rental Market Rates (or the amount per week per area) were reduced, leading to an average shortfall of £10 per week. They then pay gas, electric, water, phone, broadband (essential for jobseeking now) and council tax since Council Tax Benefit was scrapped for working age adults in 2013 (as an aside my bill went up by £44 a month overnight). Then they need to pay for transport as job seeking rules now mean that many people have to attend the Job Centre everyday to fulfil their 30 hour per week Job Seekers Agreement. There’s also the costs of toiletries and personal items such as loo roll or sanitary products, hair cuts, clothes (gotta look smart for job seeking) and any outstanding debts. Then you get to food.
The BBC suggested that on this budget the maximum amount someone could spend is £12 per week on food which is £1.71 per day. That could be manageable with a minimum of discomfort if you live near a large supermarket or market where you can shop around and access a good variety of options without having to pay additional costs to do so. At this amount, every penny matters, both with buying and preparing the food and even buying a can of Coke once a week becomes a luxury.
Living on a small food budget constantly affects your physical and mental health. Hot meals become something you only have occasionally. Fruit and vegetables are luxuries. You get tired and cold easily yet you can’t sleep well. Your brain doesn’t function at full capacity. If you already have health problems, they get worse. You can’t accomodate food intolerances. Depression seeps in. You feel you have to defend and justify yourself constantly as someone tells you yet another way to budget better, ignoring the fact you can’t budget bugger all.
As I’ve mentioned before there is a reason you live in food poverty and I find it uncomfortable that the Live Below the Line campaign doesn’t acknowledge the fact the issue exists in the UK. I feel that by focusing attention outside our own country, it actually makes it harder to draw attention to the needless increase in poverty here.
You’ve all seen the figures in the last week or two about the Trussell Trust’s food banks feeding 1 million people in the last year and the riposte that it might not have as many as that because it could have been that the same person or family was referred the maximum 3 times. No matter what way we phrase it, that means that some households are getting poorer and poorer and all that happens is we squabble over semantics.
Welfare advisors, charity workers and benefit claimants warned that these thing would happen when the Welfare Reform Act 2012 went through. Policies such as the welfare cap, bedroom tax, removal of the Social Fund and delays in the introduction of Personal Independence Payment didn’t happen by accident. They were deliberately created by the coalition government and they have pushed the most vulnerable into greater poverty and insecurity in a way that smacks of ideology over even austerity.
And as one of those people, the worst thing is that no one is really talking about it. People who describe themselves as poverty campaigners never mention the disabled who are being hit disproportionately hard by the current cuts and changes. The media focuses on the few families in 100k housing or with enough kids for each day of the month. Programmes like Question Time barely ask about welfare even when the Secretary for State is on it. And when the subject does get mentioned, it’s entirely about in terms of fraud. Not about working poverty increasing hugely or the attempts to dismantle social security as a safety net.
One of my best friends had two brain haemorrhages last March. He’s currently homeless and still waiting for any benefits to come through. He applied for PIP last May and so far Atos has cancelled his assessment for it 5 times. Another friend has been sanctioned on JSA because of a glitch with the Universal Jobmatch site. She’s disabled but claiming JSA instead of Employment Support Allowance because the delay on ESA payments after application is running at 13 weeks. That’s more than 3 months to get any money at all. It took 14 months for me to get put in the correct group on ESA and awarded the money I was owed.
I know it’s unfair to take out my frustrations and fears as a disabled person in the UK in 2015 on the Live Below the Line campaign and I’m not saying that people in poverty elsewhere should be ignored, but I do find it galling that many people who will do this campaign and enjoy the kudos that comes with going without for a few days will ignore the fact that people who live in their community face it daily. Live Below the Line has become the acceptable way to care about food poverty and allow many people to do very little long term.
How many people asking for sponsorship on this will know if the cleaners in their office get the Living Wage? How many bothered to look and see what main political parties’ policies are on social security two weeks away from the election? How many contribute to a food bank or wrote to their MP about fuel poverty? How many watch those programmes that demonise benefit claimants and then laughs about ‘scroungers’ afterwards on social media? How many read papers like the Daily Mail that propagate the myth that most sickness benefits are claimed fraudulently but say it’s ok because they just read the showbiz sections?
By all means, do Live Below the Line (and I know some very fine people doing it) but please don’t assume that five days of mild discomfort teaches you very much about the reality of many people’s lives. As I said, you’d be better off donating regularly from your daily budget, but really everyone would be better off if we put pressure on our elected representatives to create a fairer society and stop expecting poor people to solve their own problems. Never did the phrase ‘charity begins at home’ have quite as much resonance.
(The image at the top is a Trussell Trust food bank list for 3 days food.)