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11 years on: the relationship between austerity and foodbank use

June 2021 marks 11 years since the election of the conservative-liberal democrat coalition government. Possibly the defining feature of this government was the introduction of austerity policies. The 2010 budget announced the first of many welfare policy changes – over the next ten years, changes brought in include a benefit cap, changes to housing benefits, sanctions for failing to be actively job-searching, reassessments for disability benefits and the two child policy which restricted child benefits to the first two children. Reductions in public expenditure, seen in changes to both national government spending and local council spending, were also announced.

Previous studies have suggested that these austerity policies may have been related to increases in foodbank use and food insecurity since 2010. Food insecurity is when people have limited access to food due to a lack of money or other resources. It ranges from worrying about being able to obtain food, compromising quality and variety of food, reducing quantity of food, skipping meals to experiencing hunger. Food insecurity can have long term health impacts, including obesity and chronic disease.

We set out to review the evidence on this topic by searching and reviewing scientific studies investigating austerity policies and food insecurity (known as a systematic review), in new research published by eclinicalmedicine and funded by the NIHR School for Public Health Research. All eight papers that we found on this topic reported a clear and consistent relationship between austerity policies and foodbank use and food insecurity.

Six of these found that the welfare reform aspect of austerity led to increased food insecurity and food bank use. In particular, sanctions – delays to benefits as a response to the person claiming benefits not actively seeking work – may increase food bank use. Overall, the studies found that increases of 100 sanctions per 100,000 people led to increases of between 2 and 36 food parcels per 100,000 people. Cuts in welfare spending, Personal Independence Payment (disability benefit) reassessments, the removal of the spare room subsidy (known as the “bedroom tax”) and Universal Credit were also associated with foodbank use.

The other two studies looked at austerity measures in Europe including the UK and both found that the introduction of austerity policies was associated with an increase in food insecurity. This highlights the need for further research in this area, especially as these studies did not look at what aspects of national austerity policies may have been behind these increases in food insecurity.

This is the first time that studies assessing the impact of austerity on food insecurity and foodbank use have been systematically reviewed. Our paper added to existing evidence that austerity policies, particularly changes relating to benefits, have affected people’s ability to afford food and increased food bank use.

Eleven years later, the Budget set out by the chancellor in March upheld the Universal Credit uplift that was implemented due to COVID-19 for the next six months, but did not address other aspects of the welfare system. Our research suggests that this was a missed opportunity as changes to the benefits system in the last decade have affected people’s ability to afford food and may have long term health impacts. The government should consider how to strengthen the safety net by removing features which cause benefit reductions and delays, as these can lead to increases in people struggling to afford food.

 Rosemary H. Jenkins (Imperial College London)

This is a guest blog and the views of the author are not necessarily those of The Equality Trust.