Food banks

Food banks are all high profile now with the today’s debate in parliament and the news that the government didn’t seem to take the debate seriously. There is a lot of criticism of the government. This bothers me, not because the Tories are in any way innocent, but because it is distracting us from more important truths. Here follows some of the things we ought to be saying in response to the rise of food banks.

(This, by the way, is a rant. I am currently writing a book on the subject which goes into more depth, and more calmly. But the points in this post need to be made now.)

Debt

Above everything else, it is the first world’s debt habit which has brought us to where we are. Our debt addiction infects every level of our economy. Our governments, both national and local, have lived on escalating debt for many years now. All corporations run their businesses on debt. The recent series of house price bubbles are fuelled by debt (including the iniquitous buy-to-let sector which prices first-time-buyers out of the market, thereby forcing them to rent the very properties they should be able to buy). Our over-zealous keeping-up-with-the-Joneses Christmas shopping is fuelled by debt (I recently received a letter from NatWest inviting me to apply for a credit card so I could spread the cost of Christmas over the whole of next year). Our shocking corporate abuse of the third world is fuelled by debt.

Debt, in itself, is not necessarily bad. A good mortgage for a first-time-buyer, for example, can be extremely empowering. But the first world has gone way overboard, always pushing the payment for our excesses into the future with ever-escalating debt. Sooner or later, the chickens had to come home to roost. This is what happened in 2007/2008. We responded to the crisis by issuing still more debt, but the system is now creaking and splitting at the seams. This is why we need food banks.

The third world

We react with shock to the number of food banks in the UK. Surely the 7th richest nation in the world should not need food banks? This argument, however, is simply rubbish (I’m putting it kindly for the readers who are faint of heart). It is a complete nonsense to speak of us as being rich. In what way are we rich? In that we have lots of money? That’s just notional: our monetary richness is simply a consequence of the strength of the pound, which has been propped up for many years now by foreign investment pouring into the country (that’s more debt, by the way). If we look at the real relationship between the UK and other countries, however, we find that for the whole of this century so far we have contributed far less to the international economy than what we’ve consumed from it. We haven’t been able to pay our way for a long time. But, yes, if you just look at money, then we are rich.

Now, all this time people have starved. Oh, to be sure, it was dirty, smelly people who looked different to us and lived far away. People discretely hidden behind the veil formed by our complex international markets where long supply chains launder the visible blood out of the products we consume. And now some small part of that misery has landed on our own shores; now that our vague promises to repay the debt some time in the future meet increasing disbelief.

Yes, it is awful that we need food banks. But we are still far, far better off than most of the global population. So, let us, whilst bemoaning our woes, be sure to also remember what has always been true: the rich have lived it up on the broken backs of the poor, and, for most of us, we have been those rich people.

Government welfare

Another oft-repeated complaint is that the government system is failing those in need. This is true. But it is true primarily because the level of need is so great. In a good economy, there should be only a small amount of need for government welfare. For many years, though, the government has met the need and, thereby, hidden it. Only now that the government decides (rightly or wrongly – but definitely blunderingly) to be more frugal, is the need exposed. Only now do we have food banks.

The danger, then, in blaming the government is that we will miss this point. Our economy is sick. The poor have always been amongst us, but we previously found ways of paying them off, of hiding them out of sight. Now they are a visible, open sore in our society. Let us notice this! Let us now, finally, choose to fix the real problem, which is that our economy is ridiculously heavily weighted towards lining the pockets of people who work more with their brains than with their hands.

My wife put it perfectly in a conversation earlier, “if you are a shelf-packer at a supermarket, you cannot feed a family”. Our society has decided that anyone who does such manual work is simply not sufficiently human to merit a living wage. In fact, we go even further: in our relentless drive for lower and lower prices, we are developing technology which drives such people out of their jobs. Forget foreigners, it is supermarket self-service tills and other such technologies which are stealing jobs from our countrymen and women.

The church

In the midst of this mess, we find the church. Who is providing the food banks? To a large degree, the church is. Good on the church. Who is criticising the heartlessness of the government? Amongst the front-runners, we find the church. Good on the church. Who is it who actually know what is happening on the ground in every community? Once again, the church is prominent. Good on the church.

But there is oh-so-much more that we can do. We are already criticising the debt habit of our age, but we need to do so more loudly. We need to be a clarion call which is ever in the news encouraging a wiser approach to debt at every level. We should be saying publicly that buy-to-let is dangerous. We should be encouraging all our own members to live a life characterised more by “I have enough” than “I want that”. We should be picketing outside the branch outlets of pay-day money lenders. We should have a burgeoning body of debt counselling services across the land. The church is present everywhere. If we made an intentional corporate effort, we have the power to dramatically change our society’s perspective on debt. We need, in short, to be prophets.

The same goes for¬†international trade justice. The Fair Trade movement has had astonishing effect on our society. Let’s keep it up and extend our work. Let’s be leaders in providing international aid (by which I mean sacrificially digging into our own pockets). Where should the money go? To some degree it doesn’t matter – as long as we sell enough pound notes for foreign currency we will shift some of the balance of economic power away from our own shores. Also, one pound helps more people in the third world than in the UK, so wherever we give internationally, we get better value for money. Let us be profligate in our international aid and let us encourage others to do the same.

Finally, let us corporately drive for a lifestyle which pushes our economy back towards manual labour. Let hand-made wooden toys take precedence over injection-moulded plastic toys. Buy local fresh produce. Avoid the supermarket and, when we do shop at the supermarket, spurn the self-service checkout. Redecorate the house, or go out to a restaurant, rather than getting a new iPod. Buy from the seller with the happiest staff, rather than the cheapest one. You get the picture Рwhenever you interact with the wider economy, ask yourself: does this, ultimately, empower the poor? If not, think again.

The end

Okay, rant over. There is plenty else the church does and plenty we might do. But, hopefully there is food for thought in what I say above. Or maybe I’m just an extremist nutter who can safely be ignored. You decide.

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