The recent all-party inquiry into food poverty in Britain is a calm, compassionate and eminently sensible document, and in his forward the Bishop of Truro, Tim Thornton, puts his finger on precisely the reason why so many people in our society are falling into desperate straits. It is more than a matter of falling incomes and rising prices for housing and utilities, though certainly these are a huge factor. It is a problem with the changing structure and values of our social landscape:
We live at a time when many of the givens by way of family life, social networks, friendship groups, and self-help infrastructure are simply not there. This means that the issues people face relating to hunger and food poverty are exacerbated and heightened because there are hardly any of the ways and means that once did exist for people to support each other. We believe that the rise in the use of food banks is a sign of the breakdown of this core value in our society. We see it as evidence that many people are living individualistic and isolated lives, and the natural and vital relationships between people do not exist as once they did. To use shorthand, the glue that once held us together and gave life to our communities has gone.
Without wanting to fall in to the trap of talking of a golden age when we all lived in cosy terraced streets with our auntie around the corner and everyone knowing each other’s business, these words are so true. Rampant, uncontrolled capitalism has made us into the iSociety, where people have to navigate a shifting, complicated, ever-changing landscape of temporary casual jobs, short-term privately rented housing and volatile family relationships.
Like most middle-class people, I suspect, I’ve read case studies of poverty and thought sourly, “They can always afford a mobile phone.” One thing I appreciated fully for the first time as I read this report was how difficult it is to navigate modern society, and particularly to search for employment, if you don’t have regular, reliable access to the Internet. Jobseekers are told to apply for a minimum of 15 vacancies a week or lose their benefits. They may have travelled long distances to the Job Centre, paying bus fares they can ill afford, but the tools they need to fulfil these demands aren’t necessarily under the same roof. Internet cafes and local libraries are disappearing – when you do get to one, you may well face lengthy queues for computers, slashed opening hours and a printer that nobody knows how to fix. None of this is trivial when your income depends on it.
The Report recommends that food banks become the centre of a network of social services; this makes a lot of sense to me. Libraries are the ideal local vehicle for delivering this model and, far from closing them down, we should be opening more and giving them more to do. Imagine, for a moment, a library, a Job Centre, a Sure Start centre and a food bank, all under the same roof and open for sensible hours with somewhere safe and warm to leave the kids while you get the help you need. Instead of grumbling that poor people don’t know how to cook, or fill in forms, or speak English properly, open a place where they can access classes in all these things. People who are preoccupied with their day-to-day survival don’t have the time and energy to trail across town to parenting workshops or healthy cooking courses, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t enjoy such activities or benefit from them if they were provided in a way that speaks to their needs and acknowledges their dignity.
The people who staff food banks already have a proven track record in delivering services that offer people hope, compassion and dignity. We should be building on this, and local libraries are the ideal place to do it. We should be turning the boarded-up retail units in run-down high streets into centres where people in need can get help that starts with food parcels, but moves on quickly to practical, long-term solutions. If you are poor and unemployed, so much of your life is spent trailing around to desperately needed sources of help, possibly with miserable small children in tow, and queuing up when you get there. That doesn’t need to be the way it is. There’s no reason, other than a society-wide lack of vision and compassion, why the local library can’t be expanded to offer everything from welfare rights advice to a community allotment, and somewhere safe to leave your kids while you help out on it and grow healthy food to take home.
The purists may protest, “But libraries are about books!” That’s true, but not entirely correct. Libraries are about knowledge, hope and opportunity. There are many ways to present these things. And certainly a library without books, including ones that entertain and inspire as well as inform and educate, would be a sad place. However, the best way to improve literacy is to get children reading, as widely and as early as possible. Small children are, given half a chance, promiscuous consumers of books, and that’s exactly how it should be, but books do cost money. They need libraries, and they need to be able to associate books with fun, adventure, warmth and safety. Many children live in homes that are cold, dark and miserable, even dangerous. In a perfect world, that wouldn’t happen. But at least if there was a place they could go called a library, where Mum stopped crying and occasionally smiled, where you could get something to eat and sit in a corner reading stories with her, those kids are going to start their school life feeling that books have something to offer them. That’s the first step on the road to a future free of poverty and filled by hope and aspiration.