Government “holds its nerve” on austerity: Dad heads to the food bank

When politicians talk about supporting “hard-working families” and “family values”, they’re  inferring that anyone not in paid work or no longer in a  marriage is a lesser being – definitely not quite one of us.  In the real world away from the political rhetoric and reductive stereotypes,  people like  Steve (not his real name), are trying against the odds to create better lives for their children.

Steve is a talented graphic designer who had to give up his job producing material for record companies when his wife’s paranoid schizophrenia worsened and she could no longer look after their two children.  Their marriage broke up about four years ago and his wife left the family home.

He came into our London food bank – one of nearly 400 run by the Trussell Trust in partnership with local churches and communities  – recently for help. He presented a voucher given to him by Families First – a well-regarded local authority programme offering intensive support for families – and we gave him a supply of at least three days of emergency food.  He needed the voucher because he had to spend some backdated benefit money on a second hand washing machine. This plunged him and his two children – a girl of 16 and a boy of 8 – into a deeper crisis.

Both children have full residence with their father. Their mother has been sectioned and is in hospital. Steve would love to do paid work, but feels that his children have been so traumatised by their mother’s illness that he needs to focus on being around for them. His daughter is angry and lashing out.  He says: “Last night she started shouting abuse at me and calling me a c*** in front of her friend.”

He says his young son is beginning to be badly affected by his sister’s  behaviour, while Steve has had his own issues with addiction to deal with. “I’m a recovering alcoholic, and I’ve gone a year without alcohol. I don’t control that obsession, but it’s been lifted by the programme that I’m on. It’s been alleviated by the process.”

The Chancellor George Osborne said today that  “Britain’s economic plan is working.” He talked about the new transferable tax allowance for married couples and the “hard work of the British people paying off”.  The Government may have “held its nerve” on austerity, but what price are people like Steve and his children paying for this? He’s seen child benefit frozen for three years since April 2011 and will be hit hard by a cap on welfare spending. From April 2014 working tax credits, child tax credits and benefits including housing benefit and income support will be capped at an annual increase of 1 per cent, instead of rising with inflation.

Gingerbread, the campaign group providing advice and support for single parents, said today that the Chancellor’s “warm words about an economy on the up will come as cold comfort for single parents – three-quarters of whom say they are worse off than they were a year ago.” Its chief executive Fiona Weir added: “A cap on welfare spending not only threatens a vital safety net for some of the most vulnerable in society, but it adds to the stigma for people – both in and out of work – who need support to make ends meet.”

Steve is a caring father, who couldn’t be doing more to fight for the long-term interests of his children. But the jackboot of  austerity is landing down hard on this struggling family.

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Sign Jack Munroe’s petition and help people like Theresa…

What happens when you live in London and are working three  low paid part-time jobs,  only one of which offers paid leave? Then on top of that daily struggle, your daughter starts having psychotic episodes and you have to take time away from work?

This was the experience of  Theresa  (not her real name), who came into this London food bank on Friday.

Theresa is a single mum who recently had to give up work for a few weeks when her youngest – a 19 year old –  had a psychotic breakdown.  She combines bar work, cleaning and acting as a midday supervisor in a school, but the school is the only job offering her some paid leave.  So caring for her daughter through the worst of her illness plunged Theresa into an immediate financial crisis.

Those weeks with hardly any money worsened an already precarious financial situation. Her income is £439 a month, while her rent is £192 a month.She spends £10 on electricity and £15 on gas each week (British Gas is the provider for both) and she pays as she goes using a card. She now has credit card debts of £1,500,  council tax arrears of £400-500 and rent arrears of about £300. She also has to tackle working and child tax credit over-payments of £994.

This situation has pushed Theresa and her daughter into food poverty. Her daughter’s care coordinator at the local mental health trust spotted the severity of the situation and was able give her a voucher to take to this London food bank – one of  a network of nearly 400 set up by the Trussell Trust in partnership with churches and communities. As well as supplying the emergency bags of food, we were able to offer Theresa some contact details for the local branch of debt counsellors  Christians Against Poverty and another local debt counselling organisation. We also gave her contact details for the council’s welfare advice service and information about the council’s hardship fund.

Theresa has little choice but to live off her credit card, much as she loathes to do this.

Today, the Trussell Trust launched Give our Kids a Christmas, in partnership with the Mirror and the union Unite. The appeal is to raise funds to help food banks give foodboxes to families in crisis like Theresa’s.

This is a brilliant campaign, but we need to tackle the causes of the inequities that leave people like Theresa and her daughter struggling to eat. Why, for example, does the UK have a massive problem with low pay, with one in five employees low paid in 2012? See the Resolution Foundation report on this. Terrible as it is for the young, older lives are also being blighted. Nearly half of the low paid are aged between 31 and 60.

Food poverty campaigner Jack Munroe   has today  – in tandem with this Christmas food bank appeal – launched a petition via Change.org calling for Parliament to debate the causes of UK hunger. Why is food bank use increasingly so rapidly?

Details of the petition are here. It’s already got nearly 44,000 supporters. Sign it, please.