No less revolutionary

Want: The food bank has replaced the soup kitchen and look permanent as Tory cuts persist

When William Beveridge identified ‘want’ as one of his five giants, the memories of soup kitchens, dole queues and children with rickets were fresh in the collective mind. The want of the 1930s, focused on the industrial areas, was material. It meant not enough nourishing food, ragged clothes, furniture sold or pawned, and the utter absence of enriching entertainment or diversion from grinding poverty. According to the Fabian Society social scientist Richard Titmuss, an average of 150 Britons died every day between 1928 and 1938 because of malnutrition.

Today, as the props of Beveridge’s system of social security are kicked away by the Tories, material poverty has persisted. The pay day loan has replaced the pawn-broker in many deprived neighbourhoods, with annual percentage rates of over 1,000 per cent. There are record levels of crippling, personal debt in the poorest communities.

The food bank has replaced the soup kitchen. Unicef report that one in five British children lack safe and nutritious food. Between 1 April 2016 and 31 March 2017, the Trussell Trust provided 1,182,954 three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis (compared to 1,109,309 in 2015-16). Nearly half a million went to children. In 2012 when I made a film about food banks in Liverpool, they were a new and unfamiliar concept. Today, they are part of daily life.

I know from my own community in Liverpool Wavertree that poverty continues to shape the life chances of local people. It effects children’s education, creates a roadblock to opportunity, and means small injustices for next generation: the absence of new clothes, school trips, expensive toys or regular holidays. It means injustices for older generations too: the absence of decent meals or heating in winter. Overall, it scars the community with inequality and injustice.

But today want means more than material needs such as food, clothes and a roof over your head. It also means spiritual want. A study by the Red Cross and Cooperative Bank shows that over nine million adults in the United Kingdom feel often or always lonely. 43 per cent of young people feel lonely, according to Action for Children. Age UK state that 3.6 million people aged 65 and over say that the television is their main form of company. The Jo Cox Foundation identifies the huge social and economic cost of this dislocation and fragmentation of our communities. Loneliness has a major effect on our mental health.

We live in an age of dazzling technological advances, and a revolution in communications. We also live in an age of growing inequality, with the gap between rich and poor getting wider. For millions, the enticing possibilities of the fourth industrial revolution are a chimera. Real, genuine poverty is as real for millions as it was when Beveridge wrote his report. In the introduction, he wrote: ‘A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.’ The next Labour government will confront a serious problem of want in our society, both material and spiritual. Our response should be no less revolutionary.

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Luciana Berger MP is president of the Labour Campaign for Mental Health

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The December 2017 edition of Progress magazine has a Beveridge at 75 focus. Read other articles in the series, including on the other four ‘giants’ and how they fair today, now.

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