Tim Lang’s Field Notes: Food poverty or plain inequality?

Field Notes

Food poverty or plain inequality?

Professor Tim Lang

Tuesday 9th February 2022

There should be few excuses for food poverty at global or national levels. Explanations, yes, but excuses, surely not.  Yet the policy terrain is awash with political justifications. The poor mismanage, they don’t know how to cook, it’s their fault, they don’t grow enough, it’s the state’s fault, food is too expensive and ought to be cheaper, etc, etc. These are not new arguments. One voiced extensively in the 19th and early 20th centuries was that the blame lay mostly with women – for being poor household managers, for having too many children. Once British women won the vote in 1928, politicians used this argument at their peril.

It’s too easy to blame the victims. Even if found to be wrong, victim-blaming centres political attention onto what Beveridge’s best-selling 1942 social insurance report called ‘Want’, i.e. on lack of food rather than the mal-distribution of food.

Today, I suggest, the policy focus must be wrenched back to become more systemic, less personalised. The world has ample food to feed everyone well yet distortions are normal. Over-, under- and mal-consumption co-exist. The dream of the 1940s scientists to banish hunger and food poverty continues to elude even a rich society like the UK. So we must ask why, yet again, is food poverty growing rather than diminishing? Is food poverty a deliberate or unforeseen consequence of how the food system is run? Why is prevention not a top political priority?

To her great credit, food writer Jack Monroe’s fury and personal experience as a single mother on benefits led her to demand better focus on food price inflation, and to call for new metrics which capture the lived experience of people on low incomes. And to its credit, the Independent Review for the National Food Strategy made it a priority in both its reports for England to do something to alleviate food poverty.

But we still need to ask: why has the sixth-richest economy on the planet even got this problem? The post World War 2 social contract was that the welfare system would prevent this, and education, housing and economic opportunities would drive it into the history books. Nor, fresh from Brexit, can the UK blame Brussels!

No shortage of data

Academics can be clear. There is no shortage of data on what’s happening. And, if nothing else, the Treasury opening its coffers via Quantitative Easing (QE), the furlough schemes when the state stepped in to pay wages on a vast scale, the billions thrown overnight to address Covid equipment shortages, all showed that the state, if it wants, can spend its way out of a crisis. So why isn’t it, on food? Indeed, the new post-Brexit farm subsidy schemes barely talk of food.

In early February, the Bank of England warned that UK households face the worst squeeze on disposable incomes for 30 years. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, among others, has shown how the scale of ‘absolute poverty’ was already stubbornly high, with 18% of the UK population officially poor in the decade since the 2007-09 Great Recession.

Within that overall picture, it’s quite possible to identify who is hurt most. Private renters, for example, experience poverty more than home-owners who’ve benefited from low-interest-rate mortgages. The amount of money households have to spend on diet is directly shaped by housing status. Housing is a fixed payment, whereas food is a flexible, more discretionary item in household budgets. Since the sell-off of social housing under the 1980s Thatcher era ‘right to buy’ and the block on local authorities building new housing, the poor are inevitably funnelled into the ballooning rented housing sector. Housing is a bubble, good for rentier capitalists but bad for food and health outcomes. The pressure is on again to maximise availability of cheap foods, when health alarm bells are already ringing over the UK having the highest consumption of ultra-processed foods in Europe. The housing problem drives this.

Inequality not poverty is the problem

The Office for National Statistics’ Household Finances Survey shows that the gap between the richest in society and the rest of the population has widened over the last 10-year period, captured powerfully by the recent two-part BBC documentary The Decade the Rich Won.  Income inequality was actually even worse during the Great Recession under Labour, but had narrowed before that. In 2011-20, the income share of the richest 1% increased from 7% to 8.3% of the national economy.

House of Commons Library data show that income inequality is higher now than it was in the 1960s. In 2019-20, 42%of all disposable household income in the UK went to the fifth with the highest household incomes, while 7% went to the lowest-income fifth (based on disposable income before housing costs have been deducted). The 2019/20 Gini coefficient for UK income inequality was 35% before housing costs and rises to 39% after housing costs. OECD data show how poorly the UK performs compared to other developed countries. It’s the fifth worst of 19 countries on which OECD has data.

This consistent inequality lies at the root of current concern about food poverty. In 2018, the richest fifth of people in the UK had an income more than 12 times the amount earned by the poorest fifth.

What can be done about it?

Firstly, it would help if we stopped looking only ‘down’ rather than ‘up’ in society. There are good projects itemising the experience of the poor such as the Covid Realities project. This did the particularly useful thing (on p119) of costing what the people said would help them leave food poverty, such as (a) restore the £20 Universal Credit ‘uplift’ (£8bn), (b) increase child benefit by £10 (£7.5bn), (c) write off historical tax credit debt (£3.5bn), and so on. These are not small sums and could only come from taxation.

Secondly, tracking tax fraud and avoidance would unlock spending. HMRC estimates tax fraud as £35bn a year. It would help to have even better studies of the acceleration of wealth. There is no shortage of money. It’s just who has it and where it goes. There are some good overall pictures such as Oxfam’s Inequality Kills report which estimated that the 10 richest men in the world more than doubled their fortunes from $700 billion to $1.5 trillion in the two Covid years. It’s why some can afford to ‘play’ at rockets to escape planet earth claiming it’s good for humanity. A regular wealth assessment is published by Swiss bank Credit Suisse. Its Global Wealth Report 2021 confirms the rapid UK growth of Ultra High Net Worth (UHNW) individuals in recent years.

Thirdly, we must reject and phase out weak policy responses which have been allowed to proliferate in the name of crisis intervention. The expansion of food waste distribution, food banks and now ‘Bread and Butter clubs’ all signify market failure. I’m particularly alarmed at new debt companies such as Flava whose ‘selling point’ is ‘buy now pay later’ i.e. debt to buy food.

Fourthly, the answer to food poverty is not more food banks but higher incomes to enable everyone to live decently and eat a sustainable diet. That simple goal is what ought to be written into the forthcoming Defra White Paper. I’m not holding my breath, simply because current Prime Ministerial politics mean the Government is likely to back away from anything which smacks of ‘nanny statism’. Part of Brexit and levelling up promised British people they’d become more prosperous. But little new money underpinned the recent Levelling Up White Paper. So it is surprising, nay shameful, the Bank of England Governor called for wage restraint to prevent prices spiralling up.

Fairness in food work needs sorting. The food sector has lower than average wages, yet the political drift echoes the old case for more ‘cheap’ food. We need to ask where food money goes. I salute the structural approach emerging from Fairwork, a coalition of university and other researchers measuring labour standards, which has been meeting at the office of the UN’s International Labour Organisation in Geneva. Fairwork has developed five measures: fair pay, fair conditions, fair contracts, fair management, fair representation.

Finally, what is exposed by the ‘rediscovery’ of food poverty is that it never went away. It simply ebbed and flowed. Without a sense of food justice and a desire to create a society of more equal opportunity and more equal start in life, all the proposals will remain policy fluff.

Tim Lang is Emeritus Professor of Food Policy at the Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London, and a Special Adviser to the Food Research Collaboration.

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