Alison Garnham: After austerity, a pandemic – now the cost of living crisis

By Alison Garnham, Chief Executive, Child Poverty Action Group
on 20 June 2022
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For 20 years NPC has been helping philanthropists and charities to maximise social impact in the lives of the people they serve. To mark our 20th birthday, we’ve been talking to leading figures and people doing things differently to ask: Where next for social impact? In this essay, Alison Garnham asks how civil society should respond to the cost of living crisis. Opinions are the author’s own.

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Low income families face desperate times. They’ve been plunged into a cost of living crisis with incomes significantly reduced due to deliberate government policy over the past twelve years. If ever you wanted to understand why paying down the government deficit by cutting the incomes of the poorest is a bad idea, look no further than the current crisis in which people are being driven defenceless into ever more turbulent waters. And along the way they have had to weather the pandemic and all its unequal consequences.

What can the voluntary sector do to help? We can document and amplify the voices of those in this position, building the evidence and the case for change. At CPAG, our mission is clear: we want this relentless erosion of the incomes of low-income families to end. We want to change the world, to eradicate child poverty.

Lots of organisations are more directly engaged in providing relief of one kind or another. That might be direct support in the form of food, household items or grants. The growth of ‘the poverties’ agenda: food, fuel, bed, period, housing and furniture poverty is in response to the very real deprivations people experience when they do not have enough money. There is otherwise no shortage of these items. But we all know charitable relief services are not the best way to meet the need: they cannot, and should not, stand in place of a decent, properly funded social security system. A social security system that provides the level of income needed to keep people out of poverty at certain stages in their life, or which meets costs that cannot otherwise be met from individual budgets. That is why we campaign alongside these organisations for social security investment and reforms.

Our collective role as a sector is to identify issues in need of a solution, demonstrate what could be done and then happily allow those with the money and responsibility (i.e. usually the government) to roll out that solution as standard. In fairly rare circumstances, the third sector itself is uniquely qualified to deliver services better, for example, independent advice, services for women experiencing domestic violence, or services for disabled people. These services are often provided by and for their users. But voluntary is not always best. In relation to care, childcare and many other services, the highest quality provision is in fact in the maintained sector. We should be campaigning for more of it.

It is not appropriate for the government to rely on charities to mitigate the impact of systemic problems. #20yearsofNPC Click To Tweet

It is for the government, not charities, to ensure families can meet their needs. It is not appropriate for the government to rely on charities to mitigate the impact of systemic problems. As third sector organisations we are all working to do ourselves out of business, and can pack up once these charitable responses are no longer needed.

We need the government to take action. A better approach to social security is possible. Families and individuals need security through the peaks and troughs of life. Nobody ever knows when bad luck will hit, and there are key moments that are part of being human – like having a baby – that create life stages when people will inevitably need some help. Social security helps to support families who aren’t able to earn enough money for a whole range of reasons. But the system has been devalued. The current incomes crisis, caused by a long squeeze on benefits and wages, has left families unable to cope with weekly financial shortfalls, never mind a full-blown cost of living crisis. Like the NHS, we need a strong social security system ready to bear people up and help them weather storms.

We also need employment support that helps people get a decent job, not just the first one the government tells them to get. We need proper, publicly-funded childcare services: from the early years to wraparound after-school and holiday services. There is a role for schools, the NHS and housing services in keeping people from poverty and supporting children too. And we need local authorities to be properly funded to provide the services families need. In short we need a cross-government child poverty strategy once again, as recommended recently by the cross-party Work and Pensions Committee.

We know what causes poverty, and how to reduce it. As a sector, our strength is in highlighting the impact of poverty and advocating for solutions that will prevent and reduce it, working alongside those with lived experience. We have been proud to be part of the Covid Realities research programme with the Universities of York and Birmingham, working with parents and carers to document life on a low income during the pandemic and the cost of living crisis. This Nuffield Foundation-funded project will publish resources later this year which we hope will be useful for those interested in participatory research and/or drawing on participatory approaches to policymaking.

We must build public support where we can, and create pressure to force government action. #20yearsofNPC Click To Tweet

We must build public support where we can, and create political pressure to force government action. We have seen that when we come together we can make significant change for families: in the chancellor’s recent statement we saw a huge change in approach, with support given through the social security system to those worst hit by the crisis. We all know the chancellor’s package did not go far enough, but it was an important moment. We can build support for a better social security system, and other services for families.

Families in poverty entered the current cost of living crisis with incomes in such a parlous state that there was absolutely nothing they could cut back. No savings to be made. Budgets at breaking point. This shouldn’t have been allowed to happen. Our public services should have prevented it. We must continually renew our efforts to push for an end to this grinding poverty and insecurity which have such a devastating impact on people’s lives and life chances.

 

We hope you find these essays and interviews engaging and thought provoking. We’d love to hear what you think the future holds, and what you believe NPC should be focusing on. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #20yearsofNPC or through our events. As a charity ourselves we rely on the generosity of those who value our work to help us to continue to produce research and guidance to support the sector in maximising social impact. Visit the 20 years of NPC page to find out more. 

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