To an outsider, it is quite surprising to see some UK Labour Party supporters and Church of England bishops agreeing in public that food banks are an abomination.
Of course, it’s difficult to know anyone who would not like to live in a society so prosperous that no food banks are necessary, but the reality is that food banks are now a part of civil society in Britain. In fact, even if their arrival in the UK seems to correlate with the beginning of the 2008 economic crisis, it’s not at all clear that the rising usage of food banks is a useful indicator of a rise in absolute poverty. In the US, food banks have existed for decades, in good times and bad. They are so common in the national psyche that even US president, Barack Obama, volunteered at a food bank last Thanksgiving. To the extent that food banks reflect people bypassing the state to help others, that’s a good thing.
Many say that food banks arrived in the UK because of the changes to the benefits system. But there could be another explanation for this rise in food bank use: many people now feel awkward about asking friends and family for assistance. An impersonal alternative allows those in need to avoid the embarrassing prospect of asking people they know for help.
But if that’s the case, then perhaps food banks are also a symptom of decaying social capital. Rather than turn to those we know, we would rather turn to the state or to some other organisation with official approval. By providing an alternative to the community as a source of assistance, the welfare state actually weakens social bonds. The demand for food banks is not simply a product of welfare failures; it may also be a product of the welfare state itself.
The Church of England and the Labour Party have indeed found a common platform on the food-bank issue. Bizarrely for a modern society, the bishops still have a place in the House of Lords, so both politicians and clerics can spout off with the authority of parliament. The only problem is that instead of finding ways to help poorer people, they are more interested in playing the blame game over who is responsible for the apparently terrible rise of food banks. Perhaps politicians’ energies would be better spent trying to work out why social bonds in Britain are fraying, and what might be done about it.