The rapid rise in the number of people depending on food banks is the most significant social development in the UK over the last few years.
Hope+ Food Bank in Liverpool has published statistics showing why people are driven there to beg for food. Up to 200 people a week depend on it, sometimes more. The three main causes of hardship are ‘benefit delay’, ‘benefit change’ and ‘benefit sanctions’, in that order. This explains the recent rise in dependency: all three of these are recent Government innovations.
This food bank is supported by Liverpool’s two cathedrals and the parish of St Luke in the City, which includes St Bride's where the food is distributed. Details are here and are well worth reading, together with Guy Elsmore’s insightful commentary.
What are the causes, and what can be done about it? There will be a couple of challenging articles on this in the July issue of Modern Believing. Here I focus on the role of economic theory as myth: that is, as narrative about the nature of reality, narrative that tells us what to approve of and what to disapprove of. How does it work and what are the alternatives?
I commented on the Government’s response earlier. From time to time there is a major movement in economic theory which changes the way society operates. The last such change was what we called ‘new right’ economics. Its gurus were Friedman and Hayek. The basic idea was to encourage the ‘free market’ and ‘private’ investment. Taxes should be low. Legislation protecting employees, tenants and the sick should be minimised. As much money as possible should be made available to ‘business’ to maximise its profits and thereby increase ‘the economy’. This in turn would produce a ‘trickle-down effect’ and eventually benefit everyone.
From this point of view the the welfare budget is a massive drain. Huge sums of money are spent on maintaining the unemployed and would be better spent by business, making the economy grow. People who could be helping the economy are being subsidised to do nothing. They need to be pressurised to ‘find work’: pain now is for the sake of jam tomorrow.
There are many problems with this. Pressurising people to apply for jobs is pointless if the jobs are not there. The project of lowering taxes and employee pay and conditions, once accepted as a desirable aim, knows no limits. There is no trickle-down effect and never has been, except in very unusual circumstances.
But suppose it was right. Suppose that, by forcing the vast majority of us to work long hours for very little pay, the country would move into a long-term situation of ever-increasing economic growth. Why would that be a good thing?
It would mean we would produce more and consume more. But we are already producing and consuming so much as to endanger the future of human life.
It would mean there was more wealth in the country as a whole, which could be distributed to benefit everyone. But the country already has far more wealth than it needs to make sure everybody’s needs are met, with plenty to spare. The problem is that it isn’t in the right places. Yet it is precisely the current economic model that forbids any redistribution - because it insists on transferring as much wealth as possible to profit-makers.
We are in fact dealing with a very common feature of social manipulation: a myth created to justify the status quo. I am using the word ‘myth’ in its technical sense, as a narrative that explains the nature of reality and thereby offers a value system: it tells us what to approve of and what to disapprove of. Historians of theology know that myths like this are as old as history. Many myths are designed are designed to justify the status quo and pacify the disadvantaged. Often they work because educational standards are low enough for the disadvantaged to be convinced.
This is the bad news revealed by the food banks. The good news is that there is an alternative, revealed in the common human decency of ordinary people rebelling against it. I refer here to the people who donate to the food banks and administer the distributions.
According to the dominant economic model starvation drives people to look for work and contribute to the economy, so donating food to the starving lets them off and messes up the incentives. By contrast ordinary people, faced with starving neighbours, naturally want to help. It is human nature: as long as they have not been persuaded otherwise by economic theories, ordinary people feel moved to help those in need.
Although the situation is rarely described like this, we have here a major clash of ideologies, myths: a direct conflict between two theories of how humans should relate to each other. One says we should all be accumulators of wealth, leaving those in need to find their own solutions. The other says we should respond directly, sharing resources according to need. This is the one supported by all the world’s main spiritual traditions.