If it weren’t for the food bank she’d be starving, she tells me. A while back she went without food for 11 days. Christine (not her real name) says she eventually collapsed in the home she lives in on her own. “I came to, got up, and made a cup of coffee.”
Her neighbour’s daughter told her about the food bank, and she went down to the Jobcentre to get a voucher. This time – only the second time she’s come to a food bank – she had to borrow the money for the fares and take two buses to get here. She’s 51, but life has not been kind to her in recent years and she looks much, much older. She says that four years ago she was “almost killed by an abusive partner”.
Like many food bank clients who live on their own, her first thought is not for herself, but for her pets. She has quite a few cats. Luckily we’re able to find some cat food too. This relieves some of her anxiety.
Christine is a qualified silver service waitress. She says the doctor signed her off work about 10 years ago because of continuing problems with sciatica and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. She says that six months ago she was told to attend a medical screening in Croydon (most probably carried out by occupational health service providers Atos), and that following this she had been assessed as fit for work and her income support and disability living allowance were stopped. Why does she think she was assessed as fit for work? According to Christine, the person who carried out the screening had said she hadn’t asked to go to the toilet, and had also answered her mobile phone.
She appealed the decision to stop her benefits, but like many food bank clients she didn’t have enough cash to attend the appeal hearing and it went ahead without her.
After approaching the local council, Christine got help with filling out the forms for employment and support allowance (ESA), and she has now started receiving this. She says the council did not give her help applying for Disability Living Allowance. She gets £143.40 a fortnight in ESA. But because she had such a long gap without benefits, she is on anything but an even keel. She says she currently has debts of £4,500.
She’s paying off the cost of buying a washing machine from BrightHouse – obviously paying a lot more than if she had paid cash. But her major challenge is her electricity bill. Her electricity is provided by npower, and she says they’re telling her she owes them more than £2,000. She’s currently paying npower £12 a fortnight to cover arrears/debts, “but the majority of my money is going on this emergency meter, and if I don’t have enough money for it I just sit in the dark”.
With her focus on feeding the meter, sometimes Christine isn’t even eating. “I’ll put my cats first”. She can’t use the freezer, because of the expense of keeping it running and the risk of losing food if her electricity is cut off. She’s been told she can’t switch electricity companies until she’s paid off £500 of debt.
Why are we letting private companies manage the most vulnerable? As Jeremy Seabrook illustrates in his new book Pauperland: A Short History of Poverty in Britain, “the richest societies in the world are still ready to impose punitive sanctions upon the least defended”. Anthropologists no longer need to head to the Amazon or Polynesia to examine a “savage society” when they could just get an airline ticket to Britain, he points out.