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John, Diane and Karen: How we fell into the hunger trap

May 31, 2018

What traps people in food poverty and what can unlock it? We hear from 3 people with personal experience

We all want to live in a just and compassionate society, in which everyone has access to good food.

But how do we get there? How do we unlock poverty for those who have found themselves on the margins economically?

The first step is to listen to the true experts, namely those who have personal experience of poverty and of the difficult challenges and choices it brings.

A new report by Orkney CAB allows us to do just that. The organisation was stirred to act after seeing some negative hostile remarks on social media about people who had used Orkney Food Bank.

Baseless knee-jerk reactions like those are all too common for people in poverty, and those working with them. That’s partly why Church Action on Poverty and the NUJ worked together to produce new reporting guidelines, to improve the way in which poverty is reported.

In most case, people need the help of the Orkney Food Bank because of reasons outside their control but not outside the control of society. If we act together, we can remove the need for food banks.

Orkney CAB decided to respond by showing the truth about food poverty and security in their area of the UK. They have just published this report, which includes these three stories. Meet John, Diane and Karen.

John’s story

John is in his 20s. He was working full time and earning a good income until his mental health significantly deteriorated and he was signed off work by his GP. He was not entitled to any contractual sick pay and was struggling to meet his financial commitments because his only income was Statutory Sick Pay of £89.35 per week.

John expected to return to work in the near future so took out ten payday loans which he used to pay his bills. However, his mental health did not improve. He remained signed off and was soon receiving demands from his creditors and was also accruing rent and council tax arrears meaning he was at threat of eviction.

John was referred to CAB by his landlord by which time he had no money at all, no food and no power. CAB immediately referred John to the Orkney Food Bank, where he received a food parcel and electricity top up. John was advised that he was entitled to two further food parcels which gave the CAB enough time to assist him to apply for his unclaimed benefits entitlements which stabilised his financial situation and meant he could set up sustainable repayment plans with his creditors.

Diane’s story

Diane is in her 40s and has mobility issues. She had been in receipt of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for a number of years. However, because DLA is being replaced by a new disability benefit, Personal Independence Payments (PIP), Diane had to make a new claim for benefits.

Following her application for PIP, Diane’s DLA payments stopped and the DWP informed her that her application for PIP had been declined. Because the PIP application had been turned down, Diane’s entitlement to the disability element of Working Tax Credits (WTC) also ended.

Diane came to the CAB who helped her to appeal the PIP decision. Because Diane had been relying on her DLA and WTC to meet her financial commitments, she found herself choosing to pay her bills rather than eat. This was particularly concerning because Diane’s pain medication should not be taken on an empty stomach.

The CAB made a referral to the Orkney Food Bank and Diane received three food parcels plus electricity vouchers whilst CAB assisted her with her PIP appeal.

Diane’s PIP appeal was successful and she was awarded Standard Rate Daily Living of £55.65 per week and Enhanced Rate Mobility of £58 per week. Cases like Diane’s are typical. More often or not, the appeal for PIP submitted by the CAB succeeds which means that the DWP has caused a great deal of stress to some of our most vulnerable citizens. 68% of PIP appeals have succeeded.

Karen’s story

Karen is in her 20s, she has two children aged four and one. Karen came to the CAB soon after she had separated from her long-term partner who is the father of her children.

Karen’s partner had moved out of the family home leaving Karen with no income because she looked after the children and the house while her ex-partner had worked full time. Maintenance arrangement had not been set up, although Karen hoped this could be arranged because she and her ex-partner are on reasonably good terms.

The CAB helped Karen to apply for Income Support, Housing Benefit, Council Tax Reduction and Child Tax Credits. The CAB also referred Karen to the Orkney Foodbank and she received three food parcels which ensured that she and her children had food and power before her benefits were in payment.

  • ‘John’, ‘Diane’ and ‘Karen’ are pseudonyms.

Kirkwall, in Orkney, where the local CAB has been researching the nature and causes of food poverty and food insecurity

You can read Orkney CAB’s full report here, but here are a couple of extracts.

People on low incomes are quite capable of making bad choices in life but so are people on medium and high incomes. Our experience at the CAB is that those on low incomes are far more likely to make wise choices about how to make their money stretch further than the rest of us.  However, we felt it was important that we examine what the evidence has to say, rather than just rely on assumptions.

Orkney has a great tradition of charitable work. This work is often led by people who have had personal experience of hardship, such as an illness or a disability that has affected their family. They raise money so that others who face the same challenges receive more help and support. However, when it comes to low income, people either feel themselves that they are partially at fault or that others will think that they are to blame. One thing we found difficult in writing this report is that those who are struggling on a low income to make ends meet do not like to talk about it. Consequently, all the case studies are anonymous. The attitudes of those who posted the cruel remarks might well be shared by others in Orkney and that may be a big part of why people are reluctant to speak about their problems.

This report demonstrates that in most case, people need the help of the Orkney Foodbank because of reasons outside their control but not outside the control of society. If we act together, we can remove the need for food banks.

The breakdown of the Food Bank’s activities in 2017 can be summarised:

  • Benefit changes and delays are a major cause of food poverty.
  • Often mothers need help feeding their children and themselves because they have fled
    domestic violence.
  • Debt is a major factor.
  • Some families struggle during the school holidays when free school meals are not
    available.
  • Homelessness is often a related factor.
  • Debt means people cannot afford to buy food.

The bigger picture

Imagine a society where everyone had access to good food and nobody needed to go to bed hungry, where we had unlocked the hunger trap.

The End Hunger UK campaign, which brings together many like-minded organisations around the country, is working to make that vision a reality.

There are nine clear policy changes that could help families and individuals who are at risk of being swept into poverty, so that people like John, Diane and Karen can have a more secure future.

 

 

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