Austerity, Food Banks, Responsibility
In this blog post, I step away from the focus on my current project on Unequal Lives to instead speak about my most recent publication. Drawn on previous empirical material gathered from the Valleys of south Wales, the publication - published in the academic journal Geoforum - is about the phenomenon of food banking in the UK today. Below, I summarise the three main arguments developed in the article.
The unequal geography of austerity
Following the 2008 financial crisis, the UK pursued a set of policies aimed at reducing the national deficit - specifically, the vast public debt accrued when failed banks were bailed out with public money. With the election of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2010, a set of political decisions were made over where and when cuts should be made.
Despite repeated narratives of a shared national burden of cuts espoused by David Cameron, George Osborne and other key government figures at the time, policies have been anything but equal in their impacts. In their 2014 study of the economic impacts of austerity across the UK, the geographers Christina Beatty and Steve Fothergill found a vast variation between different local areas with regards to the average annual loss per household. Areas in the south-east of England - a region traditionally the most affluent in the country - has felt the least impacts of the cuts. Alternatively, it is those areas already experiencing economic downturn, deindustrialisation and relatively high levels of deprivation - former industrial areas and seaside towns - who are experiencing the harshest average per household loss.
More recently, the geographers Mia Gray and Anna Barford have studied the changes in spending by local governments - finding a large disparity in the ability of local governments to make up for the shortfall in funding passed down by the central state. As with the study undertaken by Beatty and Fothergill, the general trend points to already more deprived areas being less able to manage the cuts, and instead having to make drastic cuts to the services they offer locally.
We can also think about these unequal impacts by considering the varied impacts of welfare reform and cuts to government spending on different social groups – specifically, for example, along lines of gender. In their 2012 report ‘The impact of austerity on women’, the Fawcett Society describe a triple jeopardy faced by women at a time of austerity. Women are on average more likely to work in the public sector (64% of people working in the public sector are women, where approximately 900,000 jobs will have been cut by 2020), more likely to use services offered by the state (including childcare, sexual health and domestic violence interventions), and more likely to take on extra responsibilities and duties of care left by these service cuts. There is also growing evidence that reveals that women from ethnic minority backgrounds are also doubly marginalised, again due to a higher reliance upon state services (see the Runnymede 2017 report cited below for more).
Actually existing austerity and the localisation of responsibility
All of this paints a very unequal picture. It is those areas already more marginalised and those social groups traditionally more excluded who are experiencing the largest extent of cuts and reforms. However, in my article, as well as confirming these figures, I seek to look further than the numbers - and, more specifically, to consider these statistics not as an end-point, but as the beginning of a set of processes occurring locally through which these unequal effects are managed, negotiated and challenged.
This process of managing austerity at ground-level is itself geographically uneven, but at the scale of the local and the everyday. To examine how austerity comes to 'actually exist', as I term it in the article, we can consider the notion of responsibility.
Responsibility is an irresistibly geographical notion - it captures how we feel and act in relation to others, which processes we acknowledge and which we turn away from. Put simply, responsibility comes from a recognition of the ways in which the lives of different people in different places are, to varying extents, intertwined.
As austerity is 'downloaded', to use the geographer Jamie Peck's term, from central government and onto local councils, households and communities, the gaps that emerge in provisioning of services engender new responsibilities at a local and intimate level. This process of 'localisation', as I term it in the article, represents a scalar shifting away from the central state as the protector and guarantor of the rights of its citizens, and instead pushes individuals and communities to 'take care' of their own problems.
The food bank
Food banks are a key space where these responsibilities are being fulfilled at a local level. One would be hard-pressed not to have noticed the rise, rise and rise of food banks in the UK - particularly given their prominence on newspaper frontpages, television documentaries and films (for instance, Ken Loach's 'I, Daniel Blake'). Latest statistics from the Trussell Trust (an NGO who oversee 428 food banks in the UK – or roughly 40% of the national total) reveal that their interventions distributed emergency food parcels (each containing three-days’ worth of food) for over 1.3 million people between April 2017 and April 2018 alone. At the same time, a recent joint study by the Trust and IFAN (the Independent Food Aid Network, a loose affiliation of many other food banks around the country) found that volunteers were contributing over three million hours of unpaid work annually.
Clearly, then, these are not marginal operations. Rather, food banks have become central to the subsistence of thousands of people in the UK today. This in turn raises a central question: where does this food come from, and what work goes into its sorting and distribution?
In the article, I use two volunteers at a food bank in south Wales – Gail and Jeff – to explore who is taking responsibility for combating food poverty in the UK today. Both are unemployed and have been for a significant amount of time; both were encouraged and to some extent coerced into volunteering at the food bank to continue receiving out of work benefits; both are over sixty years old; and both live in what is statistically the country’s most deprived borough.
Both Jeff and Gail volunteer two days a week at the food bank. They work thoroughly and consistently and are incredibly dedicated to their often dull and repetitive tasks – Jeff with sorting, moving and ordering bulky food items, Gail with racing around the centre preparing hot refreshments for volunteers and clients alike. As Jeff puts it, "if I can't make it, I'm either dead or dying." What readers might find most shocking, perhaps, is that those like Jeff not only provide the labour for the food bank: they have also been recipients in the past. There is a particular intimacy between those groups who are socially excluded and have lost out most from austerity, and those who are taking on the new and novel responsibilities that have emerged as a result of austerity.
Another account I reflect on in the article is from Sarah – a young woman who arrives at the food bank with her young toddler seeking a parcel of emergency food to stave off hunger. This is not the first time I have met Sarah, though: several months before she came to the food bank in order to donate old clothes, in the hope that someone might find use for them. In Sarah’s account, we again see the intimacy between the giving and receiving of items – or what I term in the article as a form interdependency – through which responsibilities are distributed and taken on by groups who themselves are often in need.
What these accounts reveal is that the impacts of austerity are qualitatively different based on a variety of factors—namely gender, age, class and location. It is only by engaging with the local scale and everyday life that these inequalities in how austerity ‘actually exists’ emerges. In many ways, the article raises as many questions as it addresses – not least with regards to how researchers and academics can and must do more to not only study these inequalities, but also to challenge them.
Works cited above:
Beatty, C. and Fothergill, S. 2014. The local and regional impact of the UK’s welfare reforms. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 7, 63-79.
Fawcett Society 2012. The Impact of Austerity on Women. London: Fawcett Society.
Gray, M. and Barford, A. 2018. The depths of the cuts: the uneven geography of local government austerity. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society.
IFAN and Trussell Trust 2017. Food bank volunteer hours research. accessed 22nd August 2018; available at: http://www.foodaidnetwork.org.uk/food-bank-volunteer-hours
Runnymede Trust 2017. Intersecting inequalities: The impact of austerity on black and minority ethnic women in the UK. Available at: https://www.barrowcadbury.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Intersecting-Inequalities-October-2017-Full-Report.pdf
Trussell Trust 2018. Latest statistics; accessed 20th November 2018; available here: https://www.trusselltrust.org/news-and-blog/latest-stats/
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