“We were really struggling. It really did get to the point where we just didn’t know how we were going to cope. It was literally pick one thing and do that, a case of either stay warm or eat.”
(Michaela, a Birmingham mother helped by Gateway Family Services Pregnancy Outreach Team, talks to ITV news, Wednesday 11th April 2012)
Usually when people talk about poverty in the UK they are referring to relative poverty. A person classed as relatively impoverished is significantly below average in wealth, meaning they are economically unable to participate fully in society. High levels of relative poverty indicate high levels of social inequality, which as has been argued in Wilkinson and Pickett’s 2009 book The Spirit Level are linked to a variety of negative problems in society. Relative poverty impacts on things like physical health, mental well-being, educational and career opportunities.
However, absolute poverty - meaning that a person is unable to fulfil their minimum physical needs such as food, drink and shelter - occurs in the UK also, and it is on the rise. Most people are completely unaware of the extent to which this exists, or the ways in which the current economic climate is impacting on some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Media coverage of two organisations working in Birmingham have been eye-opening in showing how absolute poverty is a growing problem for the city.
Gateway Family Services are a non-profit community interest company who work in innovative ways to improve health, develop skills and opportunities and fight inequalities. In the last few days they have been instrumental in highlighting the real deprivation being fought by their pregnancy outreach team. They have set up a food bank in response to the reality that many pregnant women using their services were missing meals for days at a time. Clearly this is a great concern: malnutrition in pregnancy can have a devastating impact for both mother and baby, including obstructed labour, increased risk of premature birth &/or low birth weight (linked to infant mortality, growth retardation and infant illness), and increased risk of anaemia in pregnancy (which is linked to mortality in labour). They are not by any means the only food bank in the city, and like many others are finding big increases in the numbers of people forced to rely on this kind of support just to get by. For some, the service provides a lifeline in a time where we have high levels of unemployment, household debt, and escalating costs of living. For others, asylum-seeker status means that they are unable to access basic benefits and are struggling to feed their families.
ITV local news footage here: http://goo.gl/BKKtr
Birmingham mail article here: http://goo.gl/iRXpq
Similarly, Home-Start UK, a national family support charity, have also been in the media, talking about the way in which their services, once a helping hand for needy families, are being inundated with unprecedented levels of calls for help. In Birmingham they have seen a rise of 70% in requests for help many of which are from working families. Home-Start emphasise that the knock-on effects which come with economic difficulties – mental health problems, relationship breakdown, housing difficulties – are leading to families tipping over into crisis.
Channel 4 footage on home-start here: http://goo.gl/Q99UI
I spoke to Vicki Fitzgerald, Chief Executive of Gateway FS. She says that Birmingham is in many ways in a unique position, in that it is unusual to have community support services like Gateway FS funded through public authorities. There has been a great public response to the story, and Birmingham should be proud both of this, and of its commitment to funding the vital work that Gateway FS do. Many cities with similar levels of deprivation rely on stretched charity provision alone to provide food and support, so while the picture highlighted in Birmingham is bleak, elsewhere it is worse still and going unnoticed by many. I have been told by someone working with vulnerable people in nearby Wolverhampton that some local food-bank charities have informally requested a stop on referrals because they are unable to cope with the escalating demand. Meanwhile, the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity, estimate that they needed to feed 100, 000 nationwide in 2011, and forecast that this figure will rise to half a million by 2015.
What can we do to help?
- On a local level, while there have been many positive responses so far, the more people support Gateway FS and other groups the more vital support these groups can give to the community. If you would like to help, you can read about the work the group do at http://gatewayfs.org/ .
- You can get in touch to arrange donations to the food-bank by contacting Michelle Bluck, who co-ordinates support for the pregnancy outreach team, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Outside of Birmingham, the Trussell Trust, who run food-banks nationwide can be reached at http://www.trusselltrust.org/foodbank-projects
However, looking at the bigger picture, it is not just fire-fighting in a climate of rising economic problems which organisations like Gateway FS have to contend with. Often there is little empathy from the general public for the awful experiences women who use their services have had: Vicki Fitzgerald spoke to me very briefly about the life-histories of some of the women they help, which included being subject to atrocities such as rape in the countries they have left to seek asylum:
“The women have the most complicated and difficult lives and people really don’t understand”.
In a climate of austerity cuts, we need to fight to protect the good work which organisations such as Gateway FS do locally. However, I believe we also need to ask the question as to why, when the UK is even during a time of economic recession one of the most wealthy countries in the world, we are having the debate as to whether we can afford to meet the needs of society’s poorest, and not the debate of why their needs are not being met in first place.
Links: further reading
This post was written for Gateway Family Services and can be found at http://gatewayfs.org/2012/04/13/birmingham-food-crisis-a-glimpse-of-the-unseen-absolute-poverty-in-21st-century-uk/