The voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector works alongside local and national governments to provide support for residents. But alongside facing their own struggles as a result of the cost-of-living crisis, charities and community organisations are also being relied on more and more by people and local organisations. In this article, from our Power in Place publication, Dr Alison Briggs and Professor Sarah Marie Hall ask what approaches need to be taken to reduce demand on the sector.
- Charitable and community organisations describe a collective sense of lurching from one crisis to another. Foodbanks are busier than ever.
- Staff and volunteers remarked on how people’s experiences of food insecurity, for instance, were becoming more chronic.
- Policymakers need to move towards embedding cash-first approaches to support low-income households instead of relying on the dominant charitable approach.
Charitable organisations in the UK are ‘running on empty’ as they face the relentlessness of poverty, austerity, and the rising costs of living. Our research with charitable organisations in two cities in Northern England highlights how rates of poverty and deprivation have set the scene for the current cost-of-living crisis. This latest in a long line of crises is detrimentally impacting these organisations, who are the last line of defence against poverty.
As charitable organisations are increasingly being relied upon by welfare states to support people who are struggling to feed themselves and their families, it is essential that we question how provision of continual support – in the face of ongoing austerity and multiple crises – is experienced by those working and volunteering within this sector.
Research with local charities and community organisations
Drawing on our previous reseach on food insecurity and everyday austerity, we carried out further scoping research in late 2022. Our focus was local charities and community organisations in Manchester and Stoke-on-Trent, exploring the impacts of the cost-of-living crises on their work. This included foodbanks, housing charities, social education enterprises and more.
The organisations who generously spoke with us shared experiences of increased demand for their help. In addition to greater numbers of people needing their support, they all spoke of more organisations needing their help. This included receiving regular calls for help from organisations they have not helped before, such as local schools, probation services and women’s refuges.
The cost-of-living crisis overlaps and is entangled with austerity and public spending cuts. It comes as no surprise, then, that charitable and community organisations described a collective sense of lurching from one crisis to another. The result is an intensification of all the pressures charitable organisations have seen building for a decade. Unsurprisingly, foodbanks in both case study cities are busier than ever. Crisis has become an intrinsic part of everyday life on a low income.
A perpetual state of crisis
Such increases in need are being felt by charity workers in both cities as overwhelming. Staff and volunteers remarked on how people’s experiences of food insecurity, for instance, were becoming more chronic and we no longer something that could be ameliorated by a three-day emergency food parcel. Importantly, since people were now returning week after week, foodbank staff and volunteers felt they were ‘fighting fires’ in a perpetual state of crisis themselves.
The main concern held by all organisations was being able to continue providing the level of support they have previously offered to those in need. Staff and volunteers providing food aid expressed their fears of running out of food and therefore having to turn people away.
All contributors expressed concern that they hadn’t seen the worst yet. They were also concerned about the longer-term impacts of austerity and crisis in relation to the population’s physical and mental health, wellbeing, quality of life and mortality. Consequently, they all felt that they would still need to be here in two, five or more years’ time – a fact that sat uncomfortably with them. A specific concern was voiced by foodbanks on rising child poverty and its direct and long-term impacts, which were described as ‘catastrophic’.
Based on our research, we recommend a number of people-based solutions, aimed at national government and regional policymakers.
Among them, we include the need for a move towards embedding cash-first approaches to support low-income households. The dominant charitable approach does not work as a solution to issues of poverty. This includes direct payments from the government via Universal Credit or other legacy benefits, and cash grants provided within a wider package of support by local authorities.
Following on from their success in getting the Scottish government to adopt a cash-first approach to provide a more sustainable, long-term solution to food insecurity through addressing underlying systemic causes of poverty, the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) are currently working to embed cash-first approaches within every local authority in England. We see great examples of this across Greater Manchester. For example, cash-first approaches are now being used by some local organisations such as the Greater Manchester Migrant Destitution Fund, Trafford Housing Trust and Wigan Council, and came up in our conversations with local foodbanks.
We also highlight the need for urgent action to increase living standards for those on low and middle incomes to match rising costs of living. This will require a properly implemented, national living wage and an increase in wages to reflect increasing living costs and inflation. Although Manchester has now been recognised as a Living Wage city, a goal that the Greater Manchester city-region is working towards, wages continue to fail to keep up with rising inflation, causing levels of in-work poverty to increase. Charitable food providers in both Manchester and Stoke-on-Trent spoke about experiencing unprecedented demand in their communities, with the most common reason cited being the rising costs of living, followed by inadequate wages. These are clearly intersecting issues.
We therefore echo calls from the Trussell Trust, the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) for the government to take urgent action to increase people’s inomes. In the immediate term, however, an effective way for local authorities to tackle record levels of child poverty in both Manchester and Stoke-on-Trent, would be to introduce universal free school meals for all primary school children, as the city of London has recently done.
Until these basic conditions are met, we expect to see the cost-of-living crisis spiral further – and for charitable organisations to be filling from an empty bucket.
This article was originally published in Power in Place, a collection of thought leadership pieces and expert analysis providing evidence-led solutions for thriving and sustainable communities.
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