Tuesday, 7 October 2014

What People Keep Getting Wrong About Food Banks

Something I've been hearing rather too much of recently - from politicians and from political commentators - is that the increasing number of people relying on the foodbank scheme is evidence that poverty* is increasing in the UK.

People who make such a claim are confused. It is evidence of no such thing. Irrespective of whether or not poverty is on the increase, the number of food bank users is not the right metric to use to determine the number of people in poverty. Increased food bank use does not necessarily mean increased hardship - it probably means increased help for those in situations of hardship. Here's an illustration that will show why.

Imagine a village called Poppellville consisting of 100 people. Ten years ago 30 of the people in the village were below the median line and only 2 of them were getting help from food banks, as the foodbank scheme was still in its infancy. Fast forward to the modern day, 18 of them are below the median line, and 16 of these 18 are receiving help from the foodbank scheme. Clearly this increase in people using the foodbank scheme in Poppellville is not coinciding with an increase in poverty. In absolute terms, there has been an 800% increase in the number of people in Poppellville now benefiting from food banks over those ten years, while poverty has dropped by 40% in that same time period.

That illustration sums up what's probably the case in the UK. Rather than food banks being an indication of increased economic hardship, they most likely are a demonstration of our increased ability to respond to economic hardship with donations of food for those that need it.

* For simplicity's sake, I'm using the woeful definition of poverty that the UK Child Poverty Act 2010 uses - a definition over which I've been critical in the past.