‘It’s inhumane, horrible’: the food bank volunteer who lives on the bread line | Poverty

WWhen you’re on the breadline, there’s always this fear in the back of your mind, says Ben. “You’re constantly thinking: Do I have enough to cover even the everyday basics? You get stuck in a cycle, living at this subsistence level; it is dehumanizing, horrible.”

Ben, 39, is a former hospitality worker based in Warrington. A recovering alcoholic, he has been claiming universal credit for a year now. It’s hard, he says, but he acknowledges that it’s much worse for many other people: “In a way, I’m in a pretty privileged situation,” he says.

What he means is that he is single, with no immediate dependents (he lives separately from his partner and son). He has free time to look for bargains on the “reduce to clean” shelves in the supermarket. He can walk everywhere and not use the bus. “I can eat from hand to mouth,” he says. “Sounds rather ‘survivalist’ I suppose.”

After paying a top-up to his landlord, Recovery Homes, which is specialist accommodation for recovering addicts and child support, Ben estimates he still has £150 left of his universal credit of £360 a month to cover basic living costs. It’s almost possible, he says, if you adopt a super thrifty mindset.

“I buy staples in bulk. Let’s just say I’m frugal with fruits and vegetables. Yoghurt used to cost £1 a jar, now it’s £1.50, so that’s a luxury rarely granted,” he says. Milk often seems a little cheesy. Haircuts are well rationed – a £10 cut every other month. “I haven’t needed to use the food bank in a while,” he adds happily.

Ben volunteers at the Warrington food bank, part of the Trussell Trust network. There he sees firsthand the relentless stress endured by people he believes are “stuck in quicksand” and really struggling. “It is heartbreaking to see families – parents powerless to do what they need to do for their children.”

The food bank is a window into how things have gotten worse in the past year, he says. More people are arriving for basic food baskets and making repeat visits, and their situation rarely seems to improve. “I’ve witnessed this shift where people have gone from ‘heating or eating’ to ‘grasping to straws’ where they can’t do either.”

He praises the government’s cost of living support program, but is not impressed with the 10.1% increase in universal credit as of April, however generous it may seem. The base rate will be £85 a week for someone like him. “When you are way below the poverty line, 10% of too little is still too little.”

What does he think of the basic guarantee proposed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Trussell Trust, which would increase his basic weekly allowance to £120? He reckons it’s far from excessive. “I would call £120 a week level ‘maintaining your basic humanity’.”

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