Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Food Banks Are Probably A Sign That Things Are Getting Better, Not Worse

Yesterday at a hustings, Sheryll Murray, the Tory MP for South East Cornwall sparked outrage by saying she was 'pleased we have food banks' - a claim that invoked the vitriol of the Corbyn supporters in the audience. Much to her discredit, Sheryll Murray responded unprofessionally, encouraging attendees to ignore the people heckling her. However, on the principal point - of her being 'pleased we have food banks' - the audience got it wrong; Murray was quite right to be pleased, and anyone who is apprised of the basic economics of food banks would understand why. 

The topic of food banks has had plenty of nonsense spoken about it over the past few years. Hardly a day goes by without some uncritical politician holding up food banks as a sign of doom and gloom in our country, and using them as a stick with which to beat their political rivals. It's incredibly lazy thinking, because it misunderstands the journey from no food banks to food banks, and how and why it happened.

The first obvious point these politicians miss is that by and large the increased demand for food banks is caused by increased supply - that is, by people's increased ability to donate food and the charity infrastructure to facilitate this. Food banks are an example of Say's Law in action - "Supply creates its own demand", which very often isn't true, but is in this case.

Ask yourself a profound question: why weren't food banks around sooner? I mean, we've traded food for centuries, and we've given to charity for decades, so why weren't there food banks except very recently?

One thing to say is this: while there is no question that food banks are indication of short-term hardship for many (for complex reasons too), they are far less an indication that suddenly half a million people can no longer afford to eat, than they are an indication of increased prosperity, because the fact that nearly half a million people use them each week means that there is increased financial ability for people to afford food donations. Did it never strike you as strange that in a time when state spending is at a record high, suddenly 0.7% of the entire population could no longer afford to eat?

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.

Let me offer 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 food bank 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 food bank 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, and a demonstration of how more and more people's rise in living standards has helped them to be able to buy food specifically for the purpose of donating it to food banks.

Moreover, and this is probably why the lefties really hate them - food banks show how voluntary charity work in the local communities is doing a better, more cost-effective and more efficient job of helping people who have fallen on hard times than equivalent services would be if they were state-provided with the additional costs of the extra layers of state-bureaucracy on top, and party politicians publically squabbling over it like they do the NHS.

* 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.

EDIT TO ADD: Here's an analogy I used to elaborate this point to a commenter. Before Paracetamol was invented, people still had headaches - they just had no Paracetamol to buy at the chemist to make headaches better. The introduction of Paracetamol caused lots of people to buy them to cure headaches, but it would be absurd to argue that once we started to see lots of people buying Paracetamol, that that is evidence that people are now getting more headaches. Headaches existed long before Paracetamol, just as hardship existed long before food banks - and neither Paracetamol nor food banks made the thing they were trying to cure more widespread - they just gave people an additional helping hand.