Food poverty: ‘I was brought up not to steal. But that’s how bad it’s got’
The police have reported an increase in food shoplifting for personal use by “previously law-abiding” people, and a growth in the market for “knock off” groceries
Welfare cuts, the government passionately believes, will trigger “dynamic and behavioural changes” in those individuals who have to bear them. The implication is that these behavioural changes will be entirely positive: but what if impoverishment, intended to make “work pay,” has the opposite effect?
I spoke to a middle-aged female client of a food bank recently about how she had changed her behaviours in the face of some fairly drastic cuts to her income. She had recently had to sign off incapacity benefit, and in addition since April had lost £11.58 a week as a result of the bedroom tax.
We buy more baked beans and have them on toast. Instead of having a dinner we are having a sandwich or a snack. I do not have fruit or anything. I’m supposed to eat fruit because I’m a diabetic. But my money does not stretch that far any more.
To many people the £11.58 would not seem like a lot, she said, but for her it “went a long way”. It had been hard enough meeting the grocery bill before the recent cuts to her benefits; now it was even tougher.
The temptation, she volunteered, was to buy shoplifted food. She knew people in the neighbourhood who could supply “knock off” food. Until recently, she said, she would never have considered going to them. She’d not yet bought stolen food, but admitted she was “starting to look at it”. The relentless tedium of baked beans, or pasties from the “£1 bakery” was grinding her down, she felt, although coming to the food bank had taken some of the pressure off.
At this point, her friend her interjected. He was trying to bring up his children the right way, he said. But he had succumbed to the lure of “knock off”:
At the end of the day if I’m skint… I don’t agree with it. But… £1.50 for two packs of bacon… I felt grotty for buying it but at the same time, it did us for a couple of days
A few days later I came across this report by Jenna Thompson in the Hull Daily Mail. In it a local police officer reported that not only were more “previously law abiding” people stealing food to provide for themselves and their families, but the market for shoplifted food had grown, a trend he attributed to unemployment, welfare cuts and rising food prices.
According to sergeant Robin Danby:
We are seeing ordinary people buying stolen goods because they are having to tighten their belts… They would never consider themselves as thieves or dishonest people, but when someone offers them a jar of coffee that would normally be £5 for £2, they say yes.
This creates demand and the number of thefts increases. We have intelligence which suggests stolen foodstuffs are being sold in licensed premises and other places. Commonly, this will be high-value products such as meat, cheese and coffee, which people would normally pay a lot for in the supermarket.
Some might be tempted to attribute the cause of the growing market in “knock off” groceries on the moral turpitude and feeble character of those who make use of it. The head of the local traders association, Donna Finn, interestingly, does not appear to be one of them.
She told the paper:
It is really shocking to know how much it [shoplifting] has gone up by, but it is a sign of the times. Something has got to be done about it. There isn’t enough work for people out there and their benefits are getting cut.
Her response reminded me of something said recently by the US journalist and writer David Brooks, author of The Social Animal and an occasional advisor to the prime minister David Cameron, at a seminar in London arranged by Frontline Consultants.
A self-confessed “social conservative” he was nonetheless scathing about mechanistic “get-on-your-bike, Tebbit-style” approaches to tacklingpoverty which attempt to drive behavioural change without taking account of the social context in which people operate.
He reminded his audience of mostly affluent senior public sector leaders and policy makers:
If you were in poverty you would behave the way most people in poverty behave
Which is not to say that most people in poverty buy “knock off” groceries, or that theft (or buying stolen goods) is right or justifiable. What Brooks meant was that what usually drives individuals’ actions was not innate “character” but social context. People do not react to policy as rational economic beings or according to abstract moral precepts but in line with the social norms and relationships that exist and underpin specificcommunities.
Policy makers rarely understand this, says Brooks, and as a result there can be unintended consequences:
One of the food bank clients told me:
In the old days you didn’t have ‘owt [anything]. But no-one else did. There was more community support [such as families giving food to help out penniless neighbours] but there isn’t now. People look out for themselves
Her particular community is not just economically deprived, with high levels of unemployment, substance addiction and other poverty indicators but also, in the Brooksian sense, low on trust and social solidarity. If cutting benefits may in theory force people to “live within their means”, a rational person would cut bacon and coffee out of their diet. But as Sergeant Danby recognised, we should not be entirely surprised if people in poor, low-trust communities don’t, and instead seek alternative ways of “looking out for themselves.”