No, hunger isn't about 'bad life choices'

A growing chorus is blaming poverty and hunger on the lifestyle choices of the poor and the hungry. This belief is ignorant of the basic facts, and must be challenged.

Tim Stacey
12 June 2014

Food bank - wikimedia

This week has seen the publication of an important new report from Oxfam, The Trussell Trust and Church Action on Poverty on the experience of those in food poverty. Rather than studying the report closely to understand the lessons it holds about dealing with extreme poverty, some have chosen to reject its findings on the basis of their own prejudices. One columnist for a widely read UK newspaper went so far as to say “where there is hunger, it is generated by bad life choices - not cruel government - compounded by a voluntary influx of migrants from some of the poorest societies on Earth”. This is just wrong, factually and morally.

Thanks to the research done by the Trussell Trust we have a good understanding of why people visit foodbanks and it has nothing to do with their own life choices. Half of all referrals to foodbanks are caused by benefit delays or changes. Anyone who relies on the state’s safety net is at risk of a DWP error, or the bureaucratic system being too slow to pay them when they most need it. But it would also be wrong to say that relying on the state is a result of bad life choices.

The DWP’s own research shows that the most common reason that people receive an out of work benefit is because they have fallen ill and lost their job as a result. The second most common reason is that they left their job in order to care for a child, relative or friend. Jack Monroe’s story of losing her job because she couldn’t find child care for her son is just one of thousands of similar stories of people who are forced into food poverty. Unless you believe that all bad luck, bureaucracy and crappy child care provision is retribution from some cosmic force for making bad life choices (which is considered terrible theology by most major religions) then it is simply factually wrong to say food poverty is a result of bad life choices. The aforementioned columnist’s invocation of immigration as an explanation has nothing to do with the causes of food poverty. Immigrants simply present another poor group who can be blamed for poverty.

This vile and pernicious lie, that people with low incomes are to blame for their own poverty, has its roots in basic human psychology perverted by a deeply unequal society. There is a wide and growing body of evidence that large differences in income can poison a society, decreasing trust, increasing violent crime and shaping how we view each other. New evidence shows that increasing inequality can decrease empathy. This research shows that having more money than someone else can make you think that you are categorically different from someone else. You believe that your financial success is a result of your own talent and hard work and that you deserve it and are therefore better than those who did not succeed. This is part of the just-world hypothesis, a cognitive bias that says that the world is just and that bad things happen to people because they have done bad things and good things happen to people who have done good things.

The reality of inequality is that a few people are rich enough that they have enough stored wealth to protect themselves from income shocks caused by illness or a lack of childcare. The ONS’s research has found that 44% of the wealth in this country belongs to just 10% of its people. The Equality Trust’s own research has found that the wealth increase in a year of the richest 100 people could pay the grocery bills for all of the UK’s foodbank users for 14 years. Most people don’t have this wealth to fall back on. Approximately 50% of the population is thought to be currently financial insecure. IFS research shows that at least 48% of people will at some point in their working lives be forced to rely on means tested benefits. In the face of this widespread injustice and insecurity it’s easy to understand why some people are happy to believe the lie that those who suffer have made bad choices and those that prosper do so because they are better.

This lie should be fought, because it allows for damaging policies which perpetuate this injustice to be continued. For example it allows people like Neil Couling, Work Services Director at the DWP to support harmful policies like benefit sanctions which are one of the reasons for increasing food bank usage. He says that “many benefit recipients welcome the jolt that a sanction can give them”. If Mr Couling had considered for a moment that people he was talking about are human beings like himself, he might have thought differently, or chosen his words more carefully.

Whilst some people may with hindsight say that losing a job was the best thing that could have happened to them, that’s not how most people react to the loss of their only source of income. If officials didn’t believe that people using social security were there because they were bad people then perhaps they would sanction them less. As it is 58% of those who have appealed their sanctions at an independent tribunal have had their sanction overturned. The Government has responded by considering charging people to challenge sanctions.

Unless we challenge our unequal society and the harmful attitudes it fosters we may be doomed to face policies that harm those at the bottom, because they are deemed unworthy and undeserving of support.

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