By James Coe, Senior Policy Advisor, University of Liverpool
The COVID-19 crisis has made clear that the government has more latitude for fiscal intervention than had previously been assumed.
Support through furlough, business loans, schemes for the self-employed and targeted sector schemes has opened up a new sense that the government has significant capacity to maintain more income, jobs and livelihoods than the market would otherwise. Therefore, in the current economic circumstances we collectively face, there is an understanding that preserving the social safety net requires greater intervention and flexibility than was possible through previous benefit transfer schemes, particularly as rates of unemployment and business failure continue to grow.
In combination, this sets an expectation that the government will not only do the right thing for the economy in the abstract, but will make concrete social interventions to maintain a minimum standard of life. As job losses pile up, the economy stutters, and more people access government schemes and services, there is very little political clamour for a smaller government. Indeed, there is a near yearning for a compassionate form of governance. The capacity to intervene in the economy at large also means there is an expectation the government will act on a more targeted basis in the case of free school meals.
All the while, as the debate over how to provide food in the face of this unfurling emergency continues, the question of why it is necessary receives less attention. The structural causes of food insecurity can be longstanding through low income, inability to access sufficient state financial support or chronic ill health. Equally, there can be sudden changes in circumstance such as loss of income, accidents or unexpected costs. There is therefore a dual imperative. A need to tackle the structural causes of food poverty and an urgent need to provide food for those who cannot access it.
As the Food Aid Network write: “So, while we press on to fill an ever-widening gap with food parcels we must keep reminding our government that, of course, sticking plasters are no solution to poverty.
“The COVID-19 crisis shines a spotlight on the immense inequalities in our society, but funding the distribution of more emergency food parcels will never prove a real solution for those people deserving the dignity to be able to afford to buy food for themselves. And worse, this default reaction could very well embed food banking into our society for good.”
The government does not currently measure food insecurity, but a question has been added to the Family Resource Survey, which will report this data in 2021. Until then, we have unofficial counts with food banks assessing changing demand for food parcels. The Social Metrics Commission (SMC), who are compiling such data note, “SMC’s analysis of official data finds those in hardship are more likely to have poor health and lack qualifications than those above the poverty line.” In a separate report, they further note “those employed prior to the [COVID-19] crisis and already in the deepest forms of poverty have been most heavily impacted by the economic fallout.”
Therefore, within the higher education sector part of the work of alleviating food poverty is enhancing and growing the work to tackle the root causes of economic disparities. As the national financial picture worsens, the work of outreach and widening participation becomes more central. Firstly, this is because attending higher education is an effective route to increase income, but secondly, it is also a temporary way out of worklessness at a time when the economy is depressed. If this is to be most successful, this individual benefit should not come at the cost of an economy which builds in wider economic disparities for those who do not obtain a degree.
Secondly, as we’ve all seen on Twitter there is now daily reporting of which companies have done well by their staff, customers and communities. As with after the last financial crash, we may well see a focus on local suppliers and supply chains, both as symbolic gestures of solidarity but also, as a tangible measure to support recovery. Only recently, Homebaked, a local bakery based in Anfield, talked about how this may force a revaluation of community endeavour. Universities, as huge purchasers, may take time to reflect where we buy and our criteria for doing so, as a means of bolstering local economies, and in turn alleviating poverty on our doorstep.
Of course, while these are important interventions, we have a role in thinking about the unfurling crisis. Universities provide ongoing financial support to their students in terms of bursaries. These are likely to come under more strain, and given they rely on annualised student finance data, are less nimble in responding to the emergent crisis than government support. Therefore, a clear measure we can consider is delving into our data on bursary access, correlating that with public data to see the size of the possible gap, and planning for an increase in need for greater hardship funding. This is particular crucial at a time when university finances are under pressure.
Secondly, it’s likely students through students’ unions are already volunteering in food banks and other community outreach projects. Liverpool Guild of Students, both supports food banks through donating non-perishable food from students as part of their Leave Liverpool Tidy project, and has coordinated information on where students can provide support. Signposting and promoting these initiatives could be impactful in growing the support they can provide.
The long-term role for universities
The university sector is clearly going through significant challenge and change. In the long-term, the factors which cause food poverty are multi-variated, difficult and beyond the reach of higher education to solve alone. Practically, the work of the likes of University College London and the Child Poverty Action Group demonstrates how we can analyse the causes and impact the debate on food poverty. Civically, working with local leaders and policymakers to share data, expertise and evidence, can only support effective intervention. Locally, understanding the manifestation of the COVID-19 economic crisis on our door steps is a key to supporting our own students during this difficult time.
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