Some people can’t afford to eat. Suppose that’s a fact, or even partly true – that there are some people in this wealthy country, in 2013, who can’t afford to eat. What does it say about us? What does it say about us, as people, that we have allowed this situation to come about?
There has been a lot talked about the Food Bank debate in parliament this week. Some people have focussed on the fact that Iain Duncan Smith walked out of the debate; others have noticed that some MPs behaved with less than the gravity you might expect for a situation of this importance. (I expect our leaders to behave like braying scum until they prove themselves grown up enough to do otherwise). I don’t think either of those things is important, compared to the wider truth: some people cannot afford to eat.
The Labour Party is trying to make political gain out of the spread of food banks, but they are not entirely blameless. Their record in government was not one which paid the greatest of attention to the poorest in society or the least able to cope – possibly they held those on benefits in less contempt. They gave money back to the working poor in the form of tax credits, subsidising the huge corporations who could afford to pay better wages.
No one in power should have anything to say about the rise of food banks other than it represents a failure. A failure of society, a failure of government and a failure of us – all of us – to care enough about the situation.
It might be comforting and convenient for those of us who can afford to eat to imagine that people who use food banks do not really need them. Perhaps they are the feckless Shameless stereotypes we have in our heads, and which we have reinforced regularly by our newspapers: scroungers with big tellies who smoke, drink and smell, and who are topping up their state handouts with the generosity of useful idiots.
Others of us might think that inequality is the thing that drives the poor onward. it’s often people who have never tasted true poverty or hunger who come out with this kind of thing. A little bit of hunger never did anyone any harm. You need to suffer in order to strive. Let them eat ambition. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
But even that misses the point. Even if people are hungry entirely because of their own fault, they’re hungry. They are hungry and we can eat. There should be no ‘deserving poor’ and ‘undeserving poor’. There are people who cannot afford shelter and food, and there are those of us who can. What are we going to do about it?
Food banks might paper over the cracks. They might prevent us from dealing with the problem as urgently as we should. They might hide the working poor, the jobless poor and the zero-hours poor away from our eyes, to make them less visible, rather than seeing them begging in our streets, which would make us walk a little faster on our way through the shop doorways, and that just wouldn’t do. But they are feeding people who cannot feed themselves.
It’s not just those who are responsible for their own choices who are going through this. There are children too. Soon every young child will have a free school meal, but for some it will be the only hot or nutritious meal they have all day. Is that good enough? Do we just abandon these children and say that we are going to look the other way?
People are hungry. Some of these people are children. People can’t afford to eat. Some of these people are responsible for their own financial problems; some aren’t. I don’t care if they are or they aren’t. All I see are hungry people. Call me a bleeding heart, I’m proud to be one if it means wanting to feed people who are hungry.
It is just a symptom that something has gone drastically wrong. We are a rich country, yet there is hunger and pain. While most of us stuff ourselves at Christmas, others are starving. It should be a source of national shame. Some people can’t find jobs; some people who do work are not being paid wages that allow them to live. All the while the lifelines that dangle down to try and help those who are in trouble are being taken away. The doors are closing and we are turning our backs on them.
People are hungry. That isn’t right.