Kayleigh Garthwaite, Hunger Pains: Life inside foodbank Britain, Policy Press, 2016, xi + 195 pp, 1 4473 2911 4, pbk, £14.99
If the Policy Press, the British Film Institute, and BBC films, can get their act together, then they should sell Garthwaite’s book and Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake as a boxed set. They have the same aim – to open our eyes to what the benefits system is doing to us; they are both rooted in high quality research; and they both engage our minds and our emotions. The difference is that what we hear in Paul Laverty’s script for I, Daniel Blake is a master craftsman’s construction of believable but fictional individuals. What we hear in Garthwaite’s book is the voices of foodbank users and volunteers themselves – and, importantly, her own researcher’s voice.
Hunger Pains is ethnographic research of a particular kind. First of all it is action research: that is, the researcher is embedded in the situation being researched; and secondly, it is action research of the most engaged and expressed kind. A researcher conducting action research in a foodbank would have to become a foodbank volunteer, packing carrier bags with the required non-perishable food, and relating to the families and individuals bringing vouchers from referring agencies. What is distinctive about Garthwaite’s research is that as well as recording the events and conversations in which she takes part, she records and expresses how her thoughts and emotions are deeply affected by those events and conversations. The technique is highly effective at drawing the reader into the situation in which the researcher is working.
One of the book’s most important characteristic is its honesty, and not only in its recording of the researcher’s own complex reactions to her foodbank experience. To take one particular example: it does not shy away from the fact that the foodbank system is sometimes abused (although it is also clear that the robust voucher system makes this a rare occurrence); and neither does it shy away from the fact that people in poverty sometimes make poor choices (at the same time as it emphasises that usually there are no choices to be made, and that what might look to an outsider like a bad choice might in fact be an inevitable consequence of previous events).
The book’s introduction summarises research on recent welfare state reforms and on foodbank use. The first chapter records Garthwaite’s introduction to working in the foodbank in Stockton-on-Tees: and subsequent chapters discuss what foodbanks do (including a useful summary of foodbank use in other countries); the diverse attitudes to foodbanks and their users found among politicians, the media, and foodbank volunteers; Garthwaite’s research results and conclusions on why people use foodbanks. She finds that there are
many complex, overlapping, crushing reasons why people use a foodbank. … foodbanks really are a last resort. (p. 95)
Chapters follow on foodbank use by people either in employment or constantly in and out of precarious employment; on the lack of choice experienced by people in poverty, and in particular the difficulty of maintaining a nutritious diet; and on stigma, shame, and the ambiguous effects of the second Benefits Street series, filmed in Stockton-on-Tees. In the final chapter, Garthwaite concludes that
Foodbanks would not need to exist if it weren’t for the harsh benefits sanctions, precarious, low-paid jobs, and administrative delays that leave families without money for weeks on end: (p. 149)
it is crucial that foodbanks are not seen as an extension of the welfare state. (p. 150)
Garthwaite makes a series of specific recommendations: for instance, in relation to gas and electricity consumption costing more if accessed via a coin-operated meter than via a quarterly direct debit. She asks for the ‘nasty rhetoric’ (p. 157) to cease; and that we should listen to the voices of people who use foodbanks.
On page 156, Garthwaite reiterates the 2015 Fabian Commission’s suggestion of ‘action to reduce acute household food insecurity caused by social security benefit sanctions, delays and errors’. The one thing missing from this book is the obvious: that it is the structure of our mainly means-tested benefits system that has enabled sanctions, delays, errors, stigma, and poverty, to take root.
As you read this book – and as you watch I, Daniel Blake if you haven’t done so already – ask yourself this: Would all of this be happening if a substantial part of our means-tested benefits system were to be replaced by an unconditional, nonwithdrawable regular income for every individual? In particular: if there was money that just kept on coming, whatever else is going on in someone’s life, would we need foodbanks? The answer is ‘No’.