From the TUC

How much do you need for food?

27 Apr 2013, by in Society & Welfare

Another sign of the times is the debate about how much people on benefits need to spend on food. The BBC says you can have “a healthy diet on £15 a week”, Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke thinks the problem is they spend their money on fags and booze and the Daily Mail says you can ‘survive’ on a pound a day.

Of course, most of us could take a holiday to poverty and get by for a day or two or even a week or two. Polly Toynbee is spot on about this, it’s the grinding effect that makes poverty different – the longer it lasts, the fewer resources you have and the more difficult it is to cope with an emergency or unexpected bill. Just as important, the longer it lasts, the greyer life becomes, the more depressing. That’s bad enough to live through, but to watch its impact on those you love must be unbearable. No wonder many people in long-term poverty are desperate to hang on to whatever “luxuries” they still have; lectures about this from the comfortable are beneath contempt.

What strikes me about all this is an historical parallel. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how the ‘localisation’ of the Social Fund was recreating the Poor Law. This debate replays one of the more disgraceful aspects of the Hungry Thirties – more than a decade of impertinent advice to unemployed people about how little they needed to live on. Trades unionists came up with all the responses I’ve given above, but it was George Orwell who had the clearest insight about the politics of this. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he imagined what would happen if the millions on the dole did actually cut their spending in the way the Daily Mail and Conservative MPs would still like.

Orwell had experienced French food culture at first hand and thought that the English could learn lessons about making food go further. But in the end that was irrelevant: people on benefits don’t have a hard time because they lack the skills to make the most of their benefits, their benefits are deliberately set at a level where most people will find it hard to cope. This isn’t a conscious policy of forcing malnutrition on millions of fellow-citizens, it’s the inevitable result of a political conversation dominated by the obsession that the poor may be putting one over on the rest of us. As Orwell put it:

If the unemployed learned to be better managers they would be visibly better off, and I fancy it would not be long before the dole was docked correspondingly.

People aren’t hungry because they’re incompetent, they’re hungry because the rest of us think that the possibility they may be getting away with something is more important than hunger.

6 Responses to How much do you need for food?

  1. Heather Wakefield
    Apr 28th 2013, 9:35 am

    Thanks for this Richard. I’d like to make a couple of comments. Firstly we shouldn’t forget that the attack on those on poverty level benefits is also designed to force people into work for poverty wages and conditions – not just an attack on those forced into unemployment or hard times through illness and disability. Benefit cuts are all part of an ongoing and concerted agenda to raise profit at the expense of the workforce. Secondly, the debate on how much the poor need to live on entirely overlooks the distribution of income within households. I haven’t looked to see if there is more recent research, but when I last looked, women were much more likely to spend money on their children at the expense of their own well-being and go without food and new clothes. Another way in which the current ‘crisis’ will hit women hardest.

  2. Natasha Clarke
    Apr 29th 2013, 11:53 am

    They also don’t take into account people who have food allergies or need to be on special diets. The milk I have to have is double the cost of normal milk for instance and I am supposed to be having a long list of suppliments that the nhs don’t prescribe and I just can’t afford to buy. I wish these people could swap places with me for a week and see how they cope. Makes me so annoyed!

  3. Ralph Musgrave
    Apr 29th 2013, 1:58 pm

    “…the longer it lasts, the greyer life becomes, the more depressing.”

    People on benefits nowadays live a life that is a hundred times more stimulating and full of variety than those on average incomes in the middle ages. Those on benefits have about 50 TV stations to choose from, plus 50 radio stations to choose from, plus ten thousand books in their local library. In the middle ages, they had none of that. But (shock horror) I’d guess that those on average incomes in the Middle Ages did not suffer from depression 23 hours a day.

    And the explanation for all that is that we nasty little creatures – members of the human race – derive our happiness from being BETTER OFF THAN OTHERS, not from absolute levels of wealth.

    When the average family can afford ten helicopters, those with only two helicopters will suffer from depression, and Polly Toynbee will write moving articles in The Guardian pleading that they are given the resources to buy more helicopters.

  4. Becky
    Apr 30th 2013, 12:23 pm

    Do you know anything about the middle ages? Do you really believe their life was less stimulating – do you even know what they did? And do you really think that 50 tv stations entails a life ‘full of variety and stimulating’? If you’re going to use history to teach you anything, at least learn something about history first. *medievalist rant over*

  5. Thereal Decoy
    May 1st 2013, 1:38 am

    There once was a middle aged person
    with 23 hour daily depression
    To give it the welly
    they turned off the telly
    and blamed it for sleep deprivation