Jolyon White on food banks and how NOT to fix your underpants:
In 1968, New Zealand signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which enshrined an ‘adequate standard of living,’ including adequate housing and food, as a basic human right.
Walter Nash (NZ pm who died that same year), said “I don’t want to get rid of poverty just to ensure that prosperity is maintained; I want to get rid of poverty because it is bad, it is wrong, it is immoral, it is unethical, it is un-Christian, it is unfair, and it is unjust… I mean involuntary poverty – where people are told that their hands are not wanted, and their families will be deprived of the necessary things for health.”
In 1978, the government ratified the covenant, acknowledging that providing adequate food for all citizens was a human rights necessity. Several years later, New Zealand embarked upon sweeping economic reforms and simultaneously saw the rise of a new phenomenon, the church/charity-run food bank, which was emerging across the developed world.
The church had been involved in food charity before– soup kitchens, meals for the sick or bereaved – but there is different assumption behind those services. A prepared meal assumes someone is unable to look after themselves. A food bank assumes that someone has a home, a stove, and the ability to cook – but their pantry is empty.
Food Banks were supposed to be a short-term stop-gap measure while economic reforms brought prosperity to the nation.
Meanwhile, back at the United Nations…
The senior U.N official responsible for ensuring government compliance with signed covenants warned governments that reliance on food banks to provide adequate food was a violation of the covenant, and therefore of human rights.
Let’s say that again: a government that accepts charitable food banks as the means to provide adequate food is guilty of human rights abuse.
In 1991, a decade into the reforms, a budget was passed that is infamously referred to as the mother of all budgets. Welfare spending was slashed. In the following year and a half, food bank usage quadrupled. A 1993 food bank conference placed the total value of food parcels at 21 million dollars.
Food banks are now cemented into the landscape. New Zealand has 1 charity for every 172 kiwis. That speaks of a generous nation. But charity does not address the cause of the problem. As noted by someone pithy and notable, “charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”
Reliance on food banks is justice withheld. They exist because of a created poverty, not out of true scarcity. The economic reforms of the 80s were supposed bring prosperity. And they did… for some.
Over the past 30 years the top 10% of income earners have increased their annual income after tax by about 80%, middle-income earners by 20%, but the lowest income earners barely changed.* When increased cost of things like housing, food, power and transport are considered, bottom income earners have at times gone backwards. In 2010, seventeen people took home salaries over 1 million dollars, while 150 children died of poverty related illness.
There is now a cruel new twist on the words of Walter Nash. People are no longer in poverty because the work of their hands “is not wanted.” With the rise of in-work poverty, the work of their hands is wanted, but they still cannot adequately look after the health of their family.
Remember when you did that dodgy repair on the pantry shelf by propping it up with a broom-handle, or fixed the leak in the roof with a bucket, or darned your underpants with duct-tape, and then the existence of that broom-handle, bucket, or tape meant you never got around to actually fixing it? That’s a food bank.
We may need food banks more than ever, but (as with the duct-tape on the underpants) we should never become comfortable with their existence. Though we must still support them, they are an indication that something is wrong.
The church shows a growing discontent with inequality, and is joining positive movements toward a living wage. It has also been great at providing charity. However, for an institution whose founding document is one of social justice, the church has not often proclaimed that “charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”
*Source: Adapted from Perry, Household Incomes in New Zealand, p. 218, and figures in the World Top Incomes Database, for New Zealand, 1921-2009. Figure drawn from Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis, edited by Max Rashbrooke and published by Bridget Williams Books. We gratefully acknowledge the permission of the publishers to reproduce this figure.