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  • Writer's pictureRosa Davies

“We need to stop thinking of poverty as an individual issue and start thinking of it as structural.”

Updated: Sep 11, 2021

This article is based on the podcast interview with Emma Revie on The Jam Pact.

Emma Revie believes that her job should not exist.

Revie is the CEO of The Trussell Trust, a charity that supports a network of thousands of food banks in the UK and has, as its core mission, the goal to render itself obsolete.

The UK is the fifth richest country in the world, and yet so many people here are struggling for food.

Emma describes the food banks she works with as both “radically welcoming” and “horrifying” for the people who find themselves needing to use them.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Emma told me, “we all had a little taste” of food insecurity as supermarket shelves emptied and the supply systems that surround us - usually so invisible because they work so seamlessly - began to come under strain.

However, this challenge, Emma believes, revealed something hopeful:

“We met difficulty with compassion. We made extraordinary changes to our lives to protect one another. Our motivation was to keep each other safe.”

Emma, like the rest of the Trussell Trust, doesn’t fear a challenge.

What she fears is forgetting.

“Way before the pandemic, food banks had become normalised.”

She told me about how, in the years before Covid, food banks saw demand increase by 128%.

Text reads: 1 in 3 kids in the UK live in poverty.

Because we forget and because food banks now seem normal, people think that they're part of a problem that can’t be solved.

But the data suggests that this assumption is wrong.

“This mass distribution of food is a new phenomenon, and therefore it can be changed. We must fight against the normalisation of food banks.”

The way we do that is by fighting the causes of what drives people to food banks in the first place, the “hidden causes” of why people don’t have enough money.

Food banks are, in Emma’s words, “a sticking plaster” for poverty:

“They address a symptom of poverty. Food banks are not about food, they’re about not having enough money for essentials. People want to help their communities in a tangible way, but we need to ask why we have food banks in our communities in the first place.”

The Trussell Trust researches into questions such as this, and a key finding as to why we have so many food banks today is because of “a failure in our safety net.”

“There is one statistic that keeps me up at night, and it’s that disabled people make up 62% of all people who come to food banks. That’s just wrong.”

Text reads: 62% of people referred to food banks are disabled. Disabled people are significantly more likely than non-disabled people to be referred to food banks.

“Some people can’t work,” Emma told me. “The benefits system is extremely ungenerous and works against people.”

The average income of someone who goes to a food bank is £50 a week after rent.

Three million more people went on Universal Credit during the pandemic.

The Government plans to cut this benefit by £20 as we “get back to normal”, but the Trussell Trust and others advise that the benefits were “simply too low” in the first place and predicts that cutting them now will see an additional 200,000 more people needing to use their network of emergency food distributors.

Talking to Emma makes you realise how much poverty in this country is the result of policy decisions. Poverty on this scale isn’t inevitable if different decisions are made.

There is huge potential for positive change.

The Trussell Trust has long researched these policy decisions and the effects that they have on poverty.

“We know what drives people to food banks. We can end the need.”

I asked Emma what role isolation and loneliness plays in all of this.

She described it as an “evil” and “insidious” part of poverty. Slowly but surely, poverty causes the “fragmentation” of family bonds, and “strips” people of support from friends.

“We are built for community,” says Emma. Sometimes we can weather financial insecurity through social connections, but if the people around us are also affected by a lack of money or if we are isolated and have no one to turn to, it can make us extremely vulnerable indeed.

Poverty underlines many WI campaigns, from loneliness to mental health.

Poverty is a major factor in mental health issues, with those with low levels of income being significantly more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health condition. According to The Mental Health Foundation, these conditions are also 4.5 times more likely to be described as “severe”.

Image reads: Poverty deprives people of the chance to play a full role in society.

People are tough but, as Emma points out, “there is only so much we can bear alone. We also need each other to recognise injustice.”

We have a right to support from the Government, and we must speak of this right - both to each other and to our MPs.

“We have a collective responsibility. Our voices have power.”

Throughout our conversation, Emma spoke of the need to call out the problem “behind the symptoms of poverty”.

I asked Emma what the number one myth she would like to bust about poverty would be.

“We need to stop thinking of poverty as an individual issue and start thinking of it as structural.”

She had a second myth, too, this time around budgeting,

Budgeting skills is something that many people like to suggest and believe is a key cause of poverty, and a good way out, but Emma says that this is not true.

It is one of the most common and frustrating myths that they come up against.

The problem is that people don’t have enough money to budget in the first place, and this line of thinking just places the blame on those suffering from poverty.

"You need money to budget," she said. You can't save what you don't have.

The people who come to food banks know where every pound and penny goes. They have to. They are acutely aware of what money they do and do not have, and what items they do and do not need.

They only spend on the essentials, and they don‘t even have enough money for those.

Food bank users aren’t there because they are ignorant or because they wasted money on keeping up with trends, technology, and fashion. They are there because they don’t have money.

This can be hard to imagine if you do have money, and the assumption often is that if you have no money it is because you spent it or mismanaged it, that you need to be taught now to budget.

Emma says that there is a reason they don’t focus on it as a charity. The research just doesn't support these assumptions.

She added that we often get “distracted” from recognising the inequality that drives people to food banks.

Poverty is racist, sexist, and disableist.

Some people are far more vulnerable to poverty because of discrimination or lack of accommodations (such as the reluctance of employees to hire or make adaptations for disabled workers), and isolation makes these problems all the worse.

Despite all this, Emma says she has “extraordinary levels of hope” because of how much people want to help each other when they recognise the problem.

We expect that there will be systems in place to support us and our loved ones when things go wrong.

Text reads: "I came to the food bank today because... My benefits were stopped after coming out of hospital. I had to reapply for benefits. I didn't receive the letter informing me that my benefits were stopping as it was sent to the wrong address. I won't get any money for six weeks. I was in hospital having a tumor removed so my immune system is very low. I now have a chest infection and not having food to eat is affecting my health."

We must make sure that these systems work and stand up for them, both for ourselves and for other people.

We are all affected by these systems whether we use them (yet) or not.

The increased need for food banks can tell us much about the lack of support in society, and who is hit by this lack of support the most.

Either we build up support, or we will build more food banks.

Let’s hope that the Trussell Trust succeeds in its mission to create a society where it need not exist.

Click below to listen to the full conversation:

Follow me on Facebook: The Jam Pact | Facebook

*Apologies for losing the source for this image. I found it on Twitter but can no longer find where!

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