Hungry Britain: how austerity and stigma help explain the rise in food insecurity


By: Nikki Rodgers, BSc Criminology and Sociology student

Around 10% of the British population is food insecure, meaning that they do not have reliable access to a sufficient amount of food. Although the UK government do not have a specific measure for food insecurity, the drastic rise can be illustrated using foodbanks and other charitable food provisions, such as soup kitchens and pay-as-you-can cafes. Before 2010 these services were almost unheard of but now, they have become normalised within our society with donation points everywhere from supermarkets to offices. There around 2300 foodbanks and 3000 independent food provider  services across the UK, which for one of the wealthiest countries in the world, has been described as a social catastrophe (Independent Food Aid Network, 2020).

One way to understand this increase in food insecurity is to look at austerity. These huge public spending cuts, which began in 2010 and were the biggest since World War 2, included benefit caps, the introduction of universal credit and the loss of 900,000 jobs by 2018 (Tyler, 2020). This has made circumstances worse for all who are vulnerable and pushed more people into poverty, which can be illustrated by the fact that the Trussell Trust (2020) identified the top three reasons for referral to a foodbank as: low income, benefit delays and benefit changes. This shows that many people rely on support that is being cut and struggle without it. Furthermore, it is argued that this demonstrates how austerity is evidence for a class-war, with the government focusing the spending cuts on those already disadvantaged rather than those who can afford it. Choosing to give themselves pay rises and having the ability to find money for other areas, such as billions negotiating ‘Brexit’, is facilitating a widening gap between the rich and poor. Perhaps this shows that austerity is a political choice rather than a necessity that affects everyone as it has disproportionately impacted the vulnerable and disadvantaged, significantly contributing to the growth of food insecurity in the UK.

Conversely, members of parliament, namely Conservative party members, continue to deny the links between foodbanks and welfare reform by dismissing foodbank use as a lifestyle choice. In 2013, Michael Gove suggested that these people were all responsible for their own situation due to failing to manage their finances (BBC, 2013). It is comments such as these that have fuelled the idea that the conservative party are out of touch and the effects of austerity are intended, as foodbank providers insist this idea is not true (Trussell Trust, 2020).

Members of parliament also continue to celebrate the humanitarianism and community spirit shown by foodbanks and volunteers and, although these elements are positive, it is argued that they should not be necessary. By deflecting the perspective of foodbanks, the government is avoiding taking responsibility for the increasing need as they do not provide the welfare support that is required. Garthwaite (2016) says that it is “crucial foodbanks are not seen as an extension of the welfare state” and should not be celebrated, rather they are a reminder of the failures of the welfare state due to austerity.

Once seeing the impacts of austerity, it is difficult to grasp how this been allowed to continue but the role of stigma helps to understand this. Tyler (2020) shows how the stigma machine helps us to “look up and back” to see how stigma is bigger than the individual as it is made to reinforce inequalities which others benefit from. In this instance, the government initiated it in order to win consent for their public spending cuts and welfare reform. In 2012, David Cameron declared a “war on welfare culture” and created the image of dependent, ‘scroungers’ versus hard-working citizens (Garthwaite, 2016). This propaganda was reproduced in the media and TV shows such as ‘Benefits Street’, which have been described as ‘austerity porn’ as it is used to create a moral panic where people see ‘scroungers’ as a large issue that needs solving. Essentially, this image has been embedded into society and politics in order to devalue a group of people by inculcating disgrace and shame for all people who claim benefits. This has caused division and hatred within society, so the government are able to continue with their welfare cuts and reducing support, which in turn causes an increase in poverty and food insecurity.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Another way that this stigma benefits the government is because it works as a deterrent. Purdam et al (2016) say that foodbanks and provisions may be free but there are hidden costs of social shame and stigma. In other words, people may be too embarrassed or scared to ask for help as they know that when they do it is met with judgement. This assists the government in spending less money on welfare support and showing that it is not an essential as less people are accessing it. However, this means that the situation is worsened as more people struggle alone on a downward spiral.

Also, food insecurity has been further worsened due to COVID-19 with income shortages from redundancies, isolations and being missed out of the government’s furlough scheme. There are also extra expenses for being at home all the time, such as electricity, which leaves less money for food and many families rely on the free school meals scheme, which they are unable to access with schools closed. This issue is so great that UNICEF started a campaign to help feed children in the UK, for the first time in the organisation’s history. Despite this, MPs continue to deny the issue of food insecurity as, in the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg said that UNICEF “should be ashamed of itself” for this “political stunt” and should focus on places, for example, where people are starving (BBC, 2020). By refusing to admit that there is a problem or to take any responsibility, the government continue to power the stigma machine.

Overall, food insecurity has increased in the UK since 2010, and greatly since COVID-19, but austerity and stigma can be used to explain this. Government spending cuts have disproportionately affected the most vulnerable causing more unable to access food, and stigma has allowed for this unjust system to continue, functioning as evidence to support the cuts as well as a deterrent from using any support. Although many conservative MPs continue to deny the link between austerity and food insecurity; what does it say about such a developed nation which is unable to look after so many of its citizens?

References: 

  • BBC (2013) ‘Michael Gove ‘insulted’ food-bank users, says Labour’ Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-24042446 (Accessed: 29/12/20)
  • BBC (2020) ‘Jacob Rees-Mogg accuses Unicef of ‘playing politics’ over UK food campaign’ Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-55354958 (Accessed: 5/1/21)
  • Garthwaite, K. (2016) Hunger pains: Life inside foodbank Britain. Bristol: Policy Press.
  • Independent Food Aid Network (2020) ‘Mapping the UK’s Independent Food Banks’ Available at: https://www.foodaidnetwork.org.uk/independent-food-banks-map (Accessed: 29/12/20)
  • Purdam, K., Garrett, E.A. and Esmail, A. (2016) ‘Hungry? Food insecurity, social stigma and embarrassment in the UK’, Sociology 15(6), pp.1072-1088, doi:0038038515594092
  • Tyler, D.I. (2020) Stigma: The machinery of inequality. London: Zed Books Ltd. 
  • Images from: https://pixabay.com/ 

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