The 2019 State of Hunger report re-enforces evidence of so-called welfare reform pushing individuals and families into destitution, despite on-going government denials.
The study by Heriot-Watt University for the Trussell Trust, found five key welfare policies – the rollout of Universal Credit, increases in benefit sanctions, the bedroom tax, the benefits freeze and the withdrawal of disability benefits – had “sizeable and significant effects” in pushing up demand for food parcels.
There are now at least 2,000 food banks in the UK and 1 in 50 UK households used a food bank in 2018-19, the study estimated, while at least 3m food parcels were given out – highlighting the rise in charity welfare and the impact of austerity cuts since the start of the decade, when only a small number of food banks existed.
Trussell Trust chief executive, Emma Revie, called on ministers to make urgent changes to the benefits system, including removing the five-week wait for a first Universal Credit payment and uprating the value of benefits.
“Hunger in the UK isn’t about food – it’s about people not having enough money,” she said.
The study calculated the average income of households using food banks was £50 a week after rent.
Nine out of 10 people referred to food banks were destitute, meaning they struggled to eat regularly, clothe or clean themselves or their families, the study found.
Where the government refuses to acknowledge clear evidence of any association between extreme poverty and welfare policy, the research concludes food bank use was “driven by economic need”, noting those dependent on charity food parcels were typically also in poor health, exposed to challenging life experiences such as loss of a job or divorce, and lacked access to informal family support.
For nearly nine out of 10 food bank users, state benefits were found to be a main source of income, and low or interrupted benefit payments were the main trigger of food bank demand.
Universal Credit, with its five-week no income wait, is identified as the key driver of food bank reliance.
The study estimated that for every 100 claimants moving on to universal credit in a year, an additional 27 food parcels were issued compared with the predecessor benefit.
For every 100 households subject to the bedroom tax, an additional 68 parcels were given out.
There were 31 extra food parcels distributed for every 100 benefit sanctions.
The withdrawal or refusal of disability benefits had a significant effect on food bank use, with every 100 failed personal independence payment assessments in a year associated with the distribution of an extra 93 food parcels.
The study’s analysis of food bank users found most were in extreme poverty.
Average food bank user income was 11% of the UK median income, equivalent to £215 a month (£7 a day) after housing costs for a couple without children. This compared with official relative poverty line income of £262 a week.
Hunger and food bank use affected women disproportionately: they were twice as likely to be food insecure as men, because they were more likely to skip meals so their children could eat, while single mothers accounted for about a fifth of all food bank users.
Poor mental health affected more than half of households using food banks, while 23% of people referred to food banks were homeless – mainly in temporary accommodation or sofa-surfing. Few pensioners used food banks – an indicator, say researchers, of the relative generosity of state pensions in recent years compared with working-age benefits.
More than three-quarters of households who used food banks were in arrears, with nearly half of these behind on two or more bills – most commonly rent and council tax.
Geographically, food bank usage was shown to be most concentrated in former industrial areas of the north and Midlands as well as some coastal towns and London boroughs.
The study drew on official data as well as food bank statistics and interviews with food bank managers and users, and agencies who refer people to food banks. T
And the study also dispels ‘myths’ about food banks, such as they were mainly used by refugees and migrants or exploited by people who were not in real poverty.
Just 14% were from households where at least one person was in work, while nine out of 10 described themselves as white and UK-born.