Opinion

It's truly heartbreaking how often food bank guests are punished because they can't find work

Food bank manager Charlotte White writes about how the government's drive to push people into work means people are being left without food

Volunteers at Earlsfield Foodbank sort food in crates in the middle of a church

Volunteers at Earlsfield Foodbank sort food in crates. Image: Charlotte White

Kwami bangs the phone against his leg and sighs in exasperation: “All the time, this happens all the time”. His phone, an old Nokia, keeps cutting out as we try to download the emergency voucher that has been issued for gas and electricity. He has nothing left on the meter, three children at home and hasn’t eaten for over 24 hours.

The vouchers are only one of the problems that the broken phone is creating. He’s also waiting for a call from the council regarding his housing (deemed unsafe due to mould). Added to this, he’s worried about checking in with his job coach and filling in his online journal. Failure to do so could result in sanctions and plunge his family into further deprivation. 

We see this all the time at the food bank. People trying to get on, wanting to do the right thing, but faced with multiple, often insurmountable, barriers creating ‘chicken and egg’ situations. A broken, outdated phone is one such barrier that’s easy to sort out only if you have enough money.

Last year the government launched its ‘Back to Work’ plan. This included tougher rules around the requirements to look for work, rules which can impact benefits. Much of the discourse around this initiative assumes that the barrier to getting back to work is a lack of motivation – that a “pat on the back, there you go” nudge is all that’s needed to get people back into employment.

Hearing the experiences of our food bank guests, a lack of a desire to work isn’t the issue. So many barriers exist that impede the job search process: from practical ones, like phones that don’t work; to long-term mental health issues (often triggered or exacerbated by poverty). And for those who can search for work, many describe a complicated, laborious system, which rarely results in an interview, let alone a job.

Gillian has been searching for work for two years.  In the last two months alone, she’s applied for 15 jobs, without success. “Most of the time you don’t even hear back” she says.  She estimates she spends two to three hours a week on her job search. Like others on universal credit, she must fill in a weekly journal and report to a job coach.

She estimates that she spends as much time updating her journal and checking in with her job coach, as she does on job applications and interviews. Finding work is becoming more urgent as debt builds up.  Once her universal credit comes in and the bills are paid, she’s left with £30 for the month.  Without the food bank, her family could not eat every day.

Gillian’s job search is monitored through her universal credit account, along with any income. Gillian describes how she received a small amount of birthday money from her Dad last year and, within days, got a phone call to ask where this money came from. “It’s like they’re watching you all the time” she says.

The search for work can also create expenditure. Phil talks about how recently he was sent to a job fair in Great Portland Street, central London, costing him money to get there and back from Earlsfield. Phil is 57 years old and is regularly sent to interviews he feels he has no chance of succeeding at. 

He describes being sent to “trendy bars and delis” where they take one look at him, and the interview is done. He says that his job coach knows the situation, but every month they repeat the same process: “She knows, I know, but we just keep going through the game.”

Unlike other areas of the system, the government have placed significant resource in this area. Phil has two job coaches, one from Ingeus (an employment service, contracted by the government) and one from the Jobcentre. 



Elsewhere in the system, there’s just silence. Last year, Gillian desperately tried to find help for her 14-year-old daughter, struggling with mental health issues resulting in school avoidance. She’s still on the waiting list, no appointments, no phone calls so far. Where are the coaches here? Where’s the support?   Wouldn’t a journal be useful in this instance? 

Something is deeply wrong. If only the government focused on ensuring people’s basic needs were met, so people had adequate income to afford food, warmth and shelter. Instead the focus, and investment, is on putting people through elaborate procedures which have little chance of changing circumstances, increasing incomes or improving wellbeing.

Getting back to work requires a strong safety net to be in place to provide the springboard for people to take the next steps. Getting back to work shouldn’t be about fulfilling arbitrary, often senseless, requirements which have the potential to set people back rather than help them move forward. Something has to change.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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