DEMAND AN END TO POVERTY THIS GENERAL ELECTION
TAKE ACTION
Opinion

Poverty prevention is our best hope. Here's some tangible ways to keep people warm, dry and fed

Tom Clark and Gordon Brown's paper Partnership To End Poverty offers some answers to the debilitating poverty gripping Britain

Peckham Pantry food bank, London. Image: Andy Rain/EPA/EPE Shutterstock

It is beginning to look like ‘cost of living crisis’ was a misnomer. Crises culminate and (hopefully) pass. Britain’s new penury is beginning to more look like a chronic condition. 

Consider new numbers released on Wednesday (15 May) by the Trussell Trust, Britain’s biggest food bank network, for 2023/24 – a period during which inflation plunged from 8.7% to an unremarkable 3.2%. As the cost of living came back under control, you’d have hoped that poverty, and recourse to emergency food parcels would also decline. Instead, the number doled out rose yet again, to hit 3,121,404. Like the infamous “three million unemployed” of the 1980s, here is one number that scars a whole society. 

The growing food-parcel count is emphatically not due to any burst of enthusiasm on Trussell’s part. They are campaigning for a future in which food banks can safely be abolished. Instead, it is about jobs, rents and benefits. 

On the jobs front, despite ministerial efforts to rekindle old slurs about the “workshy” classes, more than two-thirds of poor children live in a home where somebody is earning. It’s just that too many jobs pay too little, and with no prospects of promotion, nor even any reliability about what will be paid when. Rents, already so high in so much of the country, continue to surge. 

As for benefits, a catalogue of squeezes, freezes and outright cuts have cumulatively torn great holes in our safety net, condemning millions to fall through to the rocks. Under the so-called ‘two-child benefit limit’, which both frontbenches at Westminster suggest must stay, a particular brunt is borne by children. Youngsters wicked enough to be born with more than one sibling are now demonstrably more likely to be both “food insecure” and reliant on charities to feed them. 

But – in world where a cash-strapped government faces competing pressures like crumbling hospitals and collapsing councils – what on earth to do about it? To provide some answers I have written a paper, Partnership To End Poverty with former prime minister Gordon Brown (who has had no role in this piece, and bears no responsibility for its content).

The first challenge is simply bringing all readily available resources to bear. Sometimes that is about deploying the muscle of government; for example, to give shift workers new rights. Sometimes, it is about ensuring the many charities, select companies and social enterprises that are already making a difference can make more of a difference. There is an obvious need for a new “node” function, connecting local community groups (who can pinpoint where help is most needed) with the philanthropists and corporates (who have resources, but are uncertain about where to deploy them). 

Big Issue is demanding an end to poverty this general election. Will you sign our open letter to party leaders?

By redirecting an anomalous Gift Aid rebate, that’s currently handed back to higher-rate taxpayers personally, we could also get more cash flowing direct to charities. And by imposing ‘reserve requirements’ on commercial banks in line with European and Swiss practice – a technical tweak that would save the Treasury around £2bn annually on Bank of England interest payments – we could raise cash for a partnership fund. This could support charities to bulk-buy essential goods in special – cost-price or better – deals, facilitating a major ramping up of their invaluable work to keep people warm, dry, clean and fed. 

All this would immediately soothe the roughest edges of British life. But don’t forget the food banks don’t want to provide cover for a withdrawing welfare state: they want to be rendered superfluous. That needs a comprehensive timetable, with credible milestones, for abolishing the penury in our midst. The plan must involve fixing those holes in the safety net, and also steadily raising today’s pathetic basic benefit rates – just £90 a week for a single unemployed adult. 

Is this ‘fixing’ affordable? Over time, emphatically yes. The Resolution Foundation highlights how ageing demographics and the stringent current approach to indexing benefits are combining to reduce the weight of working-age benefits in the economy, which they project will fall from 4.6% to 3.3% of GDP over the 15 years from 2026. So the resources will steadily be released to improve benefit rates, because through renewed growth, revamped skills training and stronger rights to reliable pay, we can pull additional levers to raise wages, reduce the need for benefit top-ups, and thereby ensure that the bill remains manageable. 

In sum, we have reached a pass on poverty which demands both immediate emergency medicine and more sustainable treatment to grip a dangerous chronic condition over the long the years ahead. Fortunately, it is open to us to do both. If we want to. 

Tom Clark is a contributing editor at Prospect Magazine. He is the editor of Broke: Fixing Britain’s Poverty Crisis (Biteback, £14.99).

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play


Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Dear Sunak and Starmer: Workplace mental health is too serious to be used as a political football
Poppy Jaman

Dear Sunak and Starmer: Workplace mental health is too serious to be used as a political football

UK's state pension is one of the lowest in Europe. It's the main reason for misery among retirees
state pension/ retirees
Lord Prem Sikka

UK's state pension is one of the lowest in Europe. It's the main reason for misery among retirees

There's no debate – the fate of the UK will not be decided by big mouth over small mouth
John Bird

There's no debate – the fate of the UK will not be decided by big mouth over small mouth

Number of pensioners in poverty will double by 2040 unless next government acts
pensioner poverty
Joanna Elson

Number of pensioners in poverty will double by 2040 unless next government acts

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know