What do you do if you’re a right-wing Conservative government governing a country where child poverty was soaring even before the coronavirus crisis, you're faced with an unemployment rate likely to triple even in the best case scenario, and people are now looking at you for greater help?
Offering people a voucher for up to £10 off a Nando’s* (* Monday-Wednesdays in August only), as Chancellor Rishi Sunak did in his summer statement today, is hardly likely to assuage the sense of unmet and growing need. So what else can you do?
One tactic, it seems, is to dig out the oldest anti-poor trope in the book – that the poor are only poor, because they’re feckless. And thus that if you give them more cash, or even more vouchers without “safeguards”, 'they’ll only spend it on booze'.
It’s a spectre already invoked by Tory MP Ben Bradley who told parliament following the government’s U-turn on school meal vouchers, that “many of the most vulnerable children … might be in a position where parents aren't necessarily going to use those vouchers in the right way”.
And last night children’s minister Vicky Ford weighed in, tweeting “Saddened to hear of incidents of some parents using free school meals vouchers for alcohol & non-food products despite clear restrictions & also threatening supermarket staff. Am speaking to all supermarkets on what more can be done to protect staff and make sure kids get food.”
The basis for Ford’s concerns appeared to be one article published several weeks ago in the Hull Daily Mail and reproduced in the Mirror, that interviewed one anonymous and completely uncorroborated supermarket worker. As well as some judgemental quotes about booze and other ‘non-food items’ (sanitary towels? Washing up liquid?), the worker seemed particularly aggrieved that one parent had tried to buy Lego with their voucher and hadn’t taken kindly to being told off about it. Imagine the irresponsibility! Lego!
As someone who grew up on free school meals myself, seeing a children’s minister peddle flimsy anecdotes because it suits a narrative about irresponsible poor families, makes me want to curse. (“May such politicians tread barefoot on Lego forevermore”).
Back in the early noughties, the Blair government replaced cash benefits for asylum seekers, with vouchers. I remember standing in a Tesco queue behind a woman who was trying to buy a small plastic toy truck along with her food shopping. She handed over the vouchers. The cashier told her that she would have to put the toy back, as the vouchers couldn’t be used for such things. The woman’s face crumbled. The cashier looked stricken, and so did everyone around me in the queue witnessing it. Was this what we had become as a country?
It seems so. Ford’s tweet isn’t just another crass example of blaming the most vulnerable for the state of the country. It’s also a warning shot. Yes, the government might have had to U-turn on giving the poorest parents some support to help their children eat, but they’re darn well going to make it as uncomfortable and stigmatising for people as possible. So they’re not going to increase cash benefits beyond the small boost in March, but will give you vouchers instead. And be warned – the basket police will be keeping an eye on you, ready to shame you as an example of feckless parenting if you so much as think about sneaking in a plastic toy, let alone a can of beer or two.
“They’ll spend it on booze” is a fixation that bears little relation to reality. The rich spend more on alcohol than the poor, both in cash terms and as a proportion of their income. Indeed the rich spend as much on alcohol and smoking as the poor do on heating and lighting their homes.
But the undeserving, feckless poor trope is incredibly useful to those seeking to cut social security support.
It was the US that pioneered the idea that poor people can’t be trusted with cash. Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reforms tore up the existing system of cash support and replaced it with restricted food stamps which could only be spent on certain items and in certain shops. The result, according to sociologist Kathryn Edin, was a skyrocketing number of people in the world’s richest economy who are “virtually cashless” and living on less than $2 a day. Edin co-authored a book highlighting how recipients were forced to sell their food stamps – causing shame and risking prosecution – if they needed money to buy their children new underwear, pay a water bill or for a school trip, or even just wanted to shop around in the cheaper shops.
In the UK, a Demos / Mastercard report in 2012 called for benefit cards to replace cash, and mooted some restrictions on what they could be spent on. Two years later Iain Duncan Smith, architect of the most disastrous UK benefit reforms in history, proposed that because some people had what he called “destructive habits”, all claimants should not get cash, but pre-paid cards that could only be spent on certain things.
Labour at the time responded with a less than resounding rejection, the opposition merely saying they had “no plans” to introduce benefit cards. The previous year the party had teamed up with Australian Labour minister Jenny Macklin to help shape Labour’s benefit policy. Macklin was a key player in Australia’s replacement of cash benefits with benefit cards, known as “compulsory income management”. The scheme – initially targeted at Aboriginal people – means up to 80% of payments can only be spent on certain things, in certain shops, and can’t be used to access cash. Macklin justified the scheme by saying “The government is committed to progressively reforming the welfare system to foster individual responsibility”. 84% of those using these Australian benefit cards report experiencing shame and stigma as well as being harder up than if they could shop around, according to a recent report.
Benefit reform is a slow process, and Labour’s politics were of course different for a few years. But these ideas haven’t gone away.
A focus on “poor choices”, politicians policing what poor people spend their money on in ways that are both stigmatising and impoverishing, distracts from the real scandal – that benefits are shockingly low, and too hard to access. The poorest 10% of families would have to spend 80% of their entire income on food to be able to eat a diet that was in line with government healthy eating recommendations, a recent study found. There are four million children living in poverty in the UK whose families struggle to afford a healthy diet, but only 1.3 million of them are eligible for free school meals, as eligibility criteria have been tightened.
Plenty of studies show that rather than “poor choices” being the primary cause of poverty, the relationship is the other way round. Put people under financial pressure and mental health suffers, the ability to think straight measurably declines, and the ability to seek new work is hindered. In contrast, when the last Labour government increased cash payments to poorer families, those families spending on children’s clothes, books, and fruit and vegetables went up, and their spending on alcohol and tobacco actually decreased, presumably due to lower stress.
Giving people stigmatising vouchers rather than cash benefits does of course increase the business opportunities for the retailers that accept the vouchers and suppliers like Edenred, who are contracted to run the school meal voucher scheme. The firm initially advised parents running into difficulties to call a helpline that cost £60 per hour to get through to (it’s now £21 per hour).
Rather than rely on vouchers and ever tighter policing of such schemes, as the children’s minister appears to suggest, the real need is to dramatically increase the paltry level of cash benefits – both universal credit and targeted benefits like child and disability benefits – to something people can actually live on.