I live in the seventh richest country in the world, where a reported half a million people are dependent on free, charity food handouts from food banks.
I was one of those people, for six months of unemployment. But there was almost a year before that, that I struggled alone, in silence, putting a brave face on a truly desperate situation before I finally accepted help. I had no heating, no TV, I'd sold my car and unscrewed my lightbulbs. I was missing meals, feeding just my son every night, and still applying for jobs every single day. I stopped counting after 300 applications went in, and nothing came back.
As I said in Parliament last Monday where I was invited to speak as part of a Just Fair event:
"When anyone asked, I lied and said that I was fine. Because that's the trouble, when you have holes in your socks and holes in your jeans, and your collar bones are jutting out of the two jumpers you wear to keep yourself warm. You tell everyone that everything is okay.
"You tell everyone that everything is okay, because you think that if you admit to skipping meals, or to feeding your child the same cold pasta with tomatoes for four nights in a row, you worry that you might lose him, or that he might be taken into care.
"And in the cold, the despair and the desolation, sometimes your son is the only thing that stops you from stepping off that busy flyover that you walk across every day. So you lie, and you say that you are fine."
I've been told that I don't look like a poor person. But what does a poor person look like? Standing in that queue outside a community centre, sixty deep, waiting for an hour for five tins of food and a packet of nappies, I find myself standing in front of a woman in a hospital uniform, and behind a man with a shirt on emblazoned with the logo of a supermarket seven miles away. People in work uniforms, do they look like poor people? Or me, in my smart winter coat that my grandmother bought for me for the Christmas just gone, do I look like a poor person?
And food banks, while meeting a desperate and very real need for people in our society today, are not the solution. They are a sticking plaster, and one that is applied carefully - most food banks are now by referral only due to demand, and even then, the person being referred usually has to be in touch with a formal agency in some way. Mine was a Sure Start centre that I took my son to for a free mother and toddler group. Some people are referred by their health visitors, or their doctors, or their child's nursery teacher. But some people don't see their health visitors, or their doctors. Some people's children do not attend nursery. Some people, when the going gets tough, retreat, fearful that if anyone knew how bad the situation was becoming, that they might lose their child.
Food banks are only dealing with the injuries, the deep gaping wounds left by fundamental flaws in the running of this country. They are not a solution. Children are starving, their parents are freezing. Something is wrong.
To paraphrase Desmond Tutu, there comes a point where you need to stop simply pulling people out of the river, and you need to go upstream, and find out why they're falling in.
There comes a point when you need to stop raging against the machine and shouting at the rain and instead, present solutions for the broken system.
My solutions include firstly, paying housing benefit monthly, instead of four weekly, in line with most people's rent and mortgage payments. If, like me, you suddenly find yourself out of work, and claiming housing benefit, the last thing you need is to be constantly apologising that the rent is short every month. For example, the Local Housing Allowance for a two bedroom property in Southend in £635 a month. But paid four weekly, that's just £586, leaving a £49 hole to be plugged by either child tax credits or income support. In other words, using money that is meant to be for food and heating, to top up the rent instead.
Other solutions include paying a Living Wage, £7.25 an hour instead of the current £6.19. This would mean more tax paid by full time workers, and some part time workers, a higher living standard, and more disposable income being spent back into the economy. Propping that up would be less money claimed in benefits, so a double win, surely?
But what do I know? I've only worked in the public sector, the retail sector, the food industry, been unemployed, claimed benefits, lost benefits, moved to a cheaper flat to keep my head above the water, sold everything I owned to reconcile debts accrued when my Housing Benefit took 11 weeks to process, moved again into a single bedroom that I now share with my son, after finding full time employment. What could I possibly know about the failings of the current welfare system, where it needs to be repaired, and the devastating reality that this just doesn't work. For me, and for half a million people, this doesn't work.Suggest a correction