I was speaking to a man called Pat McCullough, 67, at the Ark lunch kitchen at the Salt Cellar in Oldham yesterday.
Pat raised an issue that comes up a lot – the limit on the number of times in six months, or in a set time, that people can visit a foodbank for food parcels and/or get fuel voucher topups.
Pat, who is ex-army and having problems with money because his pension credit stopped for reasons that various people are trying to get to the bottom of, said that he’d reached his limit of three foodbank visits in six months.
Everyone I talk to who attends foodbanks here quotes the “three visits in a set time limit,” rule, often without prompting. People certainly see the “three visits” line as a policy, not as a useful flag.
Some places enforce these limits more strictly than others. You get good people and you get strict people, and you get confusion. There are also a number of different places that hand food out. Some require vouchers. Some don’t.
Pat said he’d had four foodbank referrals of late. He’d also had a couple of fuel topup vouchers, but didn’t think he’d be eligible for more for a time. He said he was using emergency credit for his electricity and gas cards at the moment.
Pat is a regular at the Tuesday lunches. I’ve written about his problems with paying for fuel before. Which brings me to the central point of this post in a roundabout way: There are a lot of people out there who I see again and again, and whose circumstances never really change. That being the case, why have limits and rules at all?
The real problem people have is that they are permanently stuck. They are permanently stuck without money. That’s the issue. They’ll never have the money that they need to get completely free and clear. A few quid here and there won’t change things.
That’s why “popular” concepts such as compulsory Debt Advice or Money Management lessons for people who apply for council or charity support always have me sighing very loudly. I wonder if we really get anywhere with any of that – a debt management person telling an impoverished person that they might be able to repay a few pounds each week on a massive court fine or whatever if they spend two quid less, say, on chips. Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul.
So what if people spend a few quid on booze, or fags, or a hamburger, or whatever. So what if some debt management worthy tells people off for spending that money. It doesn’t matter a damn when you look at the real equations. A handful of change doesn’t make an impact on the big sums and debts at all.
The real problem is that people will never get their hands on the two or three or five or ten grand or whatever it is that they need to pay debt, or rent arrears, or to stock up on fuel costs, or to put a deposit on a decent flat, or to meet council tax bills and court fines, or to ever launch themselves more than a few feet up the slippery slope. I’ve written about this time and time again. Just about everyone I talk with has a debt, or arrears, or a sanction, or a tax credit problem, or a court fine, or a DWP loan to pay back of some kind.
Some weeks are better than others and things are not terrible all of the time, in the sense that a lot of people I talk with say they like to try and look on the bright side, but the bottom line is that some people will never have enough money to get out. They know it and I know it and a lot of people know it. The world is divided into two groups of people at the moment as far as I am concerned. There are people who always have a few grand stashed away to throw at life’s financial problems. Then, there are the people who don’t.
I realise that the world has a terrible fear of the lower orders becoming dependent on foodbanks and handouts and free coffee and biscuits and all the rest, but really. So what if you think there’s such a thing as taking the piss. There is also such a thing as stacking the game so that people can’t win.