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Feeding into Scarcity

Advocating private charity instead of public aid, neoliberals in Britain are threatening to take the country back to the Victorian era.

A debutante ball in Victorian era England.

Since the formation of the Conservative-led coalition government in 2010, there has been a striking correlation between the intensification of Britain’s welfare cuts and the rapid expansion of food banks. This confluence of poverty and philanthropy is a combination not seen since the Victorian era.

Rather than support state benefits for the poor, the Conservative-led coalition government is promoting “social enterprise” solutions to societal problems and framing private philanthropy as an agent of social cohesion. As in the Victorian period, rich industrialists are being given the authority to determine the availability of public assistance and character of recipients.

It is against this historical backdrop that we must consider the rapid expansion of philanthropic food banks. Few philanthropists of that time were prepared to admit that their self-serving, paternalistic attitudes towards the poor had created the circumstances they then sought to remedy. The manner in which the rich dispensed their largesse reflected the classical liberal ideology of the age, which attempted to ameliorate poverty not via the state, but through a vast array of voluntary organizations known as “societies.”

These societies were places to enact social control and exert ideological influence. Their aim was not to provide genuine solutions to poverty, but rather to affirm the providence of the market and the importance of self-help, while also assuaging the guilt of well-heeled do-gooders. Not surprisingly, they proved inadequate to the challenge due to understaffing, underinvestment, and most importantly, the magnitude of the problem.

After great struggle from below, state taxation was brought in to deliver structured support on a massive scale. The birth of the welfare state signaled the abandonment of a worldview that associated poverty with moral degeneracy in favor of an institutional system that at least partially recognized impoverishment’s structural roots.

Britain’s political elites have come to once again identify poverty with lassitude and moral failing. Conservative government ministers delineate “strivers” and “skivers” when assigning public subsidy, insisting that they’re happy to help those hard-working Britons willing to “have a go” at bettering their fortunes, but that assistance should be rescinded from the “work-shy.” “Benefit scrounging” is also highly exaggerated, creating a perception of widespread fraud.

Reminiscent of the Victorian era’s hierarchy of merit, the poor are framed as having relegated themselves, through their own actions, to a zone of economic illegitimacy. They are consigned to food banks in much the same way they were consigned to workhouses, with those who manufacture and profit from their stress and suffering absolved of any responsibility for generating it.

New Labour and the “Big Society”

In order to understand the rise of charity food banks and other “social enterprise” programs, one also has to understand the social policy framework built up since 1997, when New Labour first assumed power.

Labour had been out of power for almost two decades. In the interim, Margaret Thatcher had fundamentally reshaped the country’s political landscape. Labour, the conventional wisdom beseeched, must adapt and “modernize” — it must shift to the center and embrace market values. With Tony Blair as its avatar, New Labour was born.

While the Conservative governments in the 1980s and 1990s were preoccupied with reducing the size and scale of the state through transferring public services to the private sector, New Labour was the first to promote a policy towards social enterprise that made no distinction between for-profit and nonprofit providers, just so long as they produced measurable outcomes that reduced state welfare expenditure.

Shortly thereafter, a social investment bank was established to incentivize the creation and expansion of social enterprises in order to introduce private competition and market-based values into public service provision.

When Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition government came to power in 2010, it did so with a major restructuring of the state — both at the local and national level — in mind. Using the budget deficit caused by the economic crisis as a pretext, Cameron cut what he considered profligate public-sector spending.

Cameron’s alternative to the welfare state is the “Big Society”: an ideological replacement in which the charitable and social enterprise sectors step in and, loyal to the governing principles of the free market, efficiently meet the needs of the poor. No longer will aid be bureaucratic and centralized. With voluntary action and localized charitable aid, there will be more social cohesion and less government interference.

The Trussell Trust

No entity has benefited more from this shift in social policy than the Trussell Trust, easily Britain’s largest food bank network. In 2000, under the previous Labour government, it opened its first food bank. The number of food banks in Britain thereafter remained low until 2004, when the Trussell Trust introduced a new franchise model to promote the growth of its network. By 2009, it had burgeoned to fifty branches, its commercial industry-influenced strategy clearly producing results.

Over the thirteen years that the Labour government was in power, the number of people using food banks reached forty thousand. That figure tripled over the two years following the global economic crisis of 2008. Their rate of use has soared even more since Cameron’s coalition government took power in 2010.

According to the Trussell Trust’s own figures, “over 900,000 adults and children have received three days’ emergency food and support from Trussell Trust foodbanks in the last 12 months, a shocking 163 percent rise on numbers helped in the previous financial year.” Trussell Trust now runs 423 of Britain’s 1,000 food banks, and on average, an additional one opens every week.

Two causes for the spike in need are the scrapping of “crisis loans” — which provided financial help in the event of an emergency or disaster — and the scores of people being kicked off benefits because they have not turned up to a meeting at a job center, are judged as not doing enough to look for work, or are not taking part in an employment or training program.

Over the past few years, the Trussell Trust has become synonymous with food banks in the public’s imagination, a sophisticatedly branded charity on the level of Oxfam or the Red Cross. Overwhelmingly presented in positive terms by the media, the organization is framed as one built around the spontaneous actions of well-meaning volunteers toiling under the Big Society banner.

What sets Trussell Trust apart from other British food banks is its emphasis on continuous growth, an indication that its interests are not merely limited to addressing hunger. Its greater ambition is to provide other public services designed to prevent “crime, housing loss, family breakdown and mental health problems,” according to its website.

This ethos is reflected in its new pilot scheme to give instant financial help and debt advice at its food banks, a service which used to be provided by the state. Trussell Trust’s research has shown that people referred to food banks are, unsurprisingly, likely to also suffer from money problems. Its solution has been to place finance guru and City of London-based philanthropist Martin Lewis OBE (who recently gave a six-figure donation to the charity) in charge of devising this “financial triage” for the poor.

The goal of the pilot program is to make a convincing case that in times of austerity, the state can not only scale back its services but can do so confidently because the private sector — able to draw on the philanthropic resources of rich donors whose personal success stories also conform to the social entrepreneurial model — can carry out these functions more effectively and efficiently.

By using the existing network of prominent philanthropists, churches, and the goodwill of volunteers, the Trussell Trust is (re)establishing power structures not seen in Britain since the nineteenth century. Given the trust’s neoliberal philosophical underpinning, it is appropriate that the chairman of the Trussell Trust, Chris Mould, is a partner in the Shaftesbury Partnership.

Founded in 2006 by the social entrepreneur Nat Wei, the Shaftesbury Partnership “is committed to catalysing social reform and action in the 21st Century to rival the explosion of mass philanthropic engagement and activity last seen in the 18th and 19th Century in England, which was spearheaded by Lord Shaftesbury and his peers.”

Lord Shaftesbury, a prominent Victorian-era Tory MP, was one of the principal figures who pushed for voluntary societies over state intervention. The success of his business model is borne out by the fact that by the mid-1880s, the income of London charities was greater than the governments of some European countries.

Despite its vast resources, nineteenth-century private charity wasn’t intended to be a safety net for all, but to provide a temporary means of support for those individuals whose prospects were most likely to improve: the young, able-bodied poor.

The solution was to get them working, and give them education and training, to improve their chances of providing for themselves. Those unwilling or unable to participate in such schemes were deemed ineligible for public funds and forced into the austere workhouses of the era as a way to prevent their further “pauperization.”

Learning from the Private Sector

Today, those who wish to revive Lord Shaftesbury’s philanthropic principles believe that poverty is the result of a narrow-minded public sector unwilling to learn from — and adopt the values and practices of — the private sector. Its solution to impoverishment therefore must be market driven. The Shaftesbury Partnership, “a social venture intermediary,” proposes to reduce poverty through the application of all manner of community franchises, shifting power away from state management to private, local groups.

Applying their neoliberal principles, Trussell Trust food banks have similarly come to operate through a McDonald’s-like franchise system, a radical departure from the previous social-democratic model in which aid was dispensed from the state as something of a right.

Wei played a particularly key role in promoting community franchising in Britain, setting up FranchisingWorks in early 2009 under New Labour. In the emerging unemployment crisis, Wei saw an opportunity. By calling attention to the faltering labor market, he was able to highlight the potential of his franchise model to create new jobs through the rapid creation of multiple start-up businesses, using various franchising formats ostensibly designed to benefit society and spur economic growth.

In 2010, shortly after the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats came to power, he was appointed Cameron’s Big Society adviser. When he was invited to take the role he had expected to be remunerated, but was told only the night before that there would be no salary, because the new government was attempting to reduce its number of paid advisers.

In lieu of salary, Wei was given a Tory peerage — making him Lord Wei of Shoreditch — and a desk in the Cabinet Office as the Big Society “czar.” Shortly thereafter, he came up with a proposal for communities to take over the running of local services such as schools and charity projects on a voluntary basis. (Wei’s proposal, as with other Big Society schemes, failed to acknowledge that most people don’t have time to voluntarily run public services on top of holding down a full-time job and looking after their families.)

Ironically, Wei found he had to cut his voluntary hours as Big Society czar in order to earn more money and “have a life.” As he took on more non-executive directorships with private companies to supplement his income, he found he had no free time left to devote to his charitable endeavor and eventually resigned his post altogether. Wei was in the job less than one year.

Wei’s departure from the Shaftesbury Partnership left an opening for Mould to join as a partner. While the Trussell Trust director’s work for the charity is publicly portrayed as wholly independent from his work for the partnership, he has used its ideological framework to reconfigure the food poverty debate and validate his enterprise’s management of food banks in the media.

His ability to shape public discourse around hunger has not only aided the Trussell Trust’s expansion, but also allowed it to normalize the use of publicly managed job centers as a route to promote privately managed, branded emergency food aid.

Both the center-left and center-right of Britain’s political and media class have enthusiastically embraced this vision of privatized welfare reform. Wei’s tenure as Big Society adviser, though lasting less than a year, nonetheless helped Cameron establish funding models for this brand of social policy development.

It also paid great dividends in terms of making a client of the government itself, convincing officials that they can rely on the Trussell Trust’s food banks to feed Britons when they are in crisis. They are not only seemingly getting something for nothing from a private organization, but more importantly, one that is a morally credible, self-identified Christian charity.

The New Austerity

The emergence of food banks in Britain over the past two decades marks a revival of a Victorian mode of private charity to address the needs of the poor. This is a direct result of state retrenchment: instead of taking basic responsibility for the welfare of citizens, both Labour and the Conservatives are committing themselves, to one degree or another, to a political agenda of permanent austerity.

Also at the forefront of this state privatization agenda are social entrepreneurs like Lord Wei and Chris Mould. Social enterprise has as its aim not just filing in the gaps of a receding state, but also trying to expand its purview through those very same economizing measures.

This retreat of the welfare state has been justified with ideological statements masquerading as realism: that the welfare state has become fundamentally unaffordable (despite the unprecedented wealth hoarded at the top); that living wages, or in some instances wages at all, are now untenable, because millions of workers are willing to be employed cheaply, without recourse to rights or conditions; and finally, that the state’s resources are so limited that it must prize “efficiency” and is thus no longer able guarantee basic economic security or adequately address poverty. This is a neoliberal fabrication.

It is austerity-advocating state and non-state actors — not inescapable reality — who are driving the ills of our time and threatening to take the British social welfare system back to the days of Queen Victoria. And it is they — not “skivers” or “scroungers” — who must be held to account.