As the Working Poor Become More Common in Britain, So Does Hunger

Posted on January 6, 2014 in Social Security Policy Context – Europe/Hull Journal
JAN. 2, 2014.   By Katrin Bennhold

HULL, England — To her colleagues at the day care center, Charlotte Burton is an independent woman who works full time and manages just fine. They admire her for biking to work at this time of year, when chilly winds blow and the River Hull swells with rainwater, intermittently swallowing parts of this northeastern city.

Only her mother knows that Ms. Burton, 34 and single, bikes because she cannot afford the $4.75 bus fare, that she huddles under a blanket at night to save on heating bills and that she recently started relying on a local food bank because by the end of the month she was eating only one meal a day — pasta mostly, or bread, whatever best filled her up.

“I was hungry,” she said in her kitchen one recent morning, fiddling with a piece of paper covered in numbers. Her monthly budget: rent, gas, electricity, taxes, down payments for the television and the debt she owes her landlord. That leaves about $100 a month for food.

The working poor, long a part of the social landscape in the United States, are becoming more common on this side of the Atlantic. As their numbers grow, so too does hunger — a feeling Ms. Burton describes as a nagging sensation, not pain as such, more an obsession that consumes all your thoughts and energy. It is no longer confined to the homeless or those struggling to make ends meet on state benefits in the world’s sixth-richest economy, say charities, economists and even some members of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party.

In Britain, five years of economic weakness, austerity and rising prices have left a mark: Average hourly earnings have risen a mere 7 percent while the cost of living has gone up by almost 20 percent, leaving at least 500,000 people here reliant on food aid, three times as many as a year ago, according to the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity that runs a network of more than 400 food banks. The trust says the number of people it fed in the eight months since April has risen twentyfold since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008.

Food banks distribute food free of charge or at heavy discounts to people generally referred to them by government agencies. They have sprung up in unlikely places, from southern commuter towns to Westminster, a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. Steve Baker, a Conservative lawmaker, says that one in five children in his southern constituency of Wycombe goes to bed hungry, calling the figure a “scandalous indictment of the safety net that is the welfare state.”

The need seems most acute in the struggling, postindustrial north.  Hull, birthplace of the 18th-century abolitionist William Wilberforce and the rock band the Housemartins, once had a thriving fishing industry and bustling harbor. Successive waves of New York-bound Eastern European emigrants stopped through on their way to Liverpool and some stayed. Today, in per capita terms, it has the greatest number of jobless benefit claimants in the country. More than one in three children here live under the poverty line.

The city’s reputation has never been great. “From Hell, Hull and Halifax, Good Lord deliver me,” goes the refrain of a poem written in 1622. More than once, Hull was voted the worst place to live in Britain. Things have actually been looking up recently. In a former fruit market in the rapidly gentrifying waterfront of the Humber estuary, hip art galleries and music venues helped Hull win Britain’s “City of Culture” designation for 2017. But so far little of that regeneration has trickled down.

Ms. Burton’s local food bank is supplied by a charity that until four years ago sent food only to developing countries like Sierra Leone. Today, 80 percent of its work is in Britain. “I never thought I would be doing this in my own country, in my own town,” said Colin Raine, who is one of the founders of the charity, Real Aid, which got its start in 2001.

The turning point came in 2007, when bad rains flooded thousands of homes around Hull and the charity temporarily stepped in to help. “It was a shock to walk into people’s homes and see how some of them lived,” said Lindsay Killick, Mr. Raine’s warehouse manager.

Mr. Killick told of one man who refused any food that had to be cooked because gas was too expensive. A woman, who lived in a bare apartment with her young daughter, had sold most of her furniture to put food on the table. “We brought them an old sofa and the little girl said, ‘Look mommy, we don’t have to sleep on the floor tonight,’ ” he recalled.

Real Aid delivers to half a dozen community centers in Hull but also runs its own food bank in nearby Bridlington, a faded seaside resort that has lost most of its trade to cheap vacation packages in Southern Europe. Three in four food bank users here work, Mr. Killick said. There are some regulars, while others may have fallen victim to exceptional circumstances like illness or an unexpected bill for a broken pipe.

The vast majority are deeply embarrassed, he said, adding, “People in these parts are very proud.”

On a recent Friday morning, a line formed outside a small room above a shop in a Victorian-era arcade. Among those waiting were a shop clerk, a restaurant worker and a grandmother who looks after her grandson during the day and was too embarrassed to tell her daughter that she did not have the money to buy the boy food.

They pay around $2.50 for what would cost more than $30 in the supermarket, a token payment but one that matters. “It feels a little less like charity,” said Karen Farrow, 24, who came with her 3-year-old daughter, Imogen.

Shyly, Ms. Farrow helped herself to potatoes, milk, canned kidney beans, cereal and soap. It was her first time here. A seasonal worker in a local beach restaurant, Ms. Farrow is out of work between November and March. Two weeks ago her partner walked out on her. Her claim for income support is being processed, and she has applied for other jobs. But in the meantime, she said, “there is nothing left in the fridge.”

Few here have noticed the economic recovery politicians in London boast about. The economy is set to expand 2.4 percent this year. Unemployment has dropped to 7.4 percent nationally, the lowest level since 2009, but at nearly 15 percent it remains stubbornly high here in Hull.

Jennifer Scales, 66, has been coming every week since June. She picks up food for her daughter Lindsey, a single mother who works as an administrator in a local government office. She recently had her first pay raise in five years, but she still does not make enough to get through the month, Ms. Scales said.

Life up north has never been easy, she said. Hull was bombed heavily during World War II, partly because German planes returning from missions over targets like Manchester dropped ballast on their way home. The old British wartime motto — “Keep calm and carry on” — is a popular slogan on mugs in local souvenir shops. But somehow it rings hollow these days, Ms. Scales said.

“We always thought if you work hard, things will get better,” she said. “It no longer feels that way.”

A version of this article appears in print on January 3, 2014, on page A7 of the New York edition with the headline: As the Working Poor Become More Common in Britain, So Does Hunger.

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