During the Covid-19 pandemic, mutual aid groups have received widespread media attention. These localised practices and networks of support draw upon older working-class traditions. Our research at Newcastle West End Foodbank has sought to understand how individuals, families and communities have responded to periods of hardship or distress throughout the post-war period. Oral history interviews with clients and volunteers demonstrate that the ethos of ‘self-help’ is mobilised even within ‘charity’ food provision, such as the Trussell Trust’s nationwide foodbank network. Our findings suggest that a place-based sense of connection provides an important starting point for practices of solidarity and mutual aid.
As Pat Thane and others have noted, similarities between experiences of poverty in the late-nineteenth and early-twenty-first centuries abound. The current government’s welfare system and its flagship Universal Credit programme aim to ‘make work pay’ by ensuring that social security payments are below the minimum wage – and therefore below subsistence levels – echoing a Victorian workhouse, geared to make welfare as unpleasant as possible and to deter all but the truly destitute. The nineteenth century also has important parallels in terms of under-employment and widespread job insecurity, as with today’s gig economy and zero-hours contracts. The Labour Party’s foundation in 1900 was, at least in part, a response to the state’s retreat from statutory assistance for working-class lives, and can be understood as part of a broader tradition of working class ‘self help’ and solidarity.
Foodbank Histories is a collaborative research project, whose starting point is that poverty has a past. Conducting life history interviews that explore past and present experiences of poverty, we are building a longitudinal understanding of how people have experienced and responded to income shortage in the Newcastle region, involving initial interviews with clients, volunteers and supporters and follow-up life story interviews with ten volunteers and long-term clients conducted between 2018 and 2020. Our research suggests that foodbank clients and volunteers, alike, draw from older traditions of solidarity and mutual support to respond to contemporary hardship.
The voices of ordinary people are too seldom heard in policy development. It is crucial that we listen to those who have experienced poverty, especially amid the current Covid-19 crisis, with more than one million people suddenly becoming underemployed and jobless. The pandemic has also generated and regenerated mutual aid networks. These life histories offer important insights into the experiences and ideas that guide those already engaged in acts of solidarity.
The rising need for foodbanks in the UK has been the subject of considerable research situating food poverty in government austerity policies and welfare reforms since 2010. In 2013 and 2014, civil society groups published a series of major reports; our research was conducted since the introduction in 2017 of Universal Credit. Many spoke about the hardship Universal Credit caused. In December 2019, a new report on independent foodbanks – that is, foodbanks not aligned with the Trussell Trust’s national franchise – found that foodbanks are a post-2010 phenomenon now ‘embedded in the UK as a response to food insecurity’.
This substantial body of research has demonstrated that:
A consistent finding is that people who need food aid have experienced a financial or ‘life shock’, almost always accompanied by chronic underlying poverty.
Our interviews with NWEF volunteers and clients collected memories of how they, their parents, and in some cases their grandparents, dealt with ‘life shock’ events and day-to-day hardship. Interviews also provide insight into the cumulative effects of poverty over a lifetime. While recognising the stigma and shame associated with food poverty, we have supported interviewees who choose to put their names to their stories, and have valued their agency in this process. We have regularly returned to participants, individually and collectively, and to check with them that our understandings and representations of their stories are appropriate.
NWEF is a Trussell Trust foodbank that operates two venues in the west end of Newcastle: the Church of the Venerable Bede and the Liliah Centre. Newcastle’s loosely-defined West End spans the area west of the city centre bounded by the northern bank of the River Tyne and the West Road. Connection to the locality is often a strong motivation for NWEF volunteers. Closely connected to NWEF, we have also interviewed members of the Newcastle United Fans Foodbank supporter group, which was established as part of a larger movement of football supporter groups. Laurie links his decision to volunteer at NWEF with living in the West End in the early years of his marriage. Despite recalling a series of ‘life shocks’, Laurie has never lived in poverty. Nonetheless, he is driven by a sense of solidarity with local people. He links the poverty he sees in the West End today to the post-industrial transformation of Tyneside:
“The industry around Tyneside has basically gone, all the heavy industry’s gone […] Tyneside now, parts of it is more like a theme park where it used to be all industry. Well you can see it and people have been left behind.”
We highlight this not to emphasise the specialness of the ‘Geordie spirit’, but to point out that even in a highly globalised world, the idea of ‘looking after your own’ remains important to many people.
Oral histories over the last 50 years provide insights into how welfare policy has impacted people experiencing financial hardship. Interviews recorded in the early 1970s included memories of poverty from the 1890s to the 1930s in which interviewees recall that ‘food tickets’ preceded the foodbanks of today. In the 1920s, the food ticket was a loan directly administered by the state in the form of the Poor Law Board of Guardians, whereas today a voucher enabling access to a foodbank is a ‘gift’. Those who experienced Poor Law relief, and the indignities of the means test that followed the demise of the Board of Guardians in the 1930s, described a deeply resented welfare system and the stigma and fear of poverty.
In a second set of historic interviews, conducted 1985-88 during another economic downturn, the oldest interviewees made connections to the hardship of the inter-war period and told stories of food gifts shared among neighbours. However, their sons and daughters, in their thirties and forties and born into the post-war era of full employment, were more likely to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor when talking about the new experience of mass unemployment. The fear of unemployment leading to food poverty is notably absent from the middle and younger generations’ oral histories recorded in the later 1980s. At that time most members of all generations thought that while unemployment was to be feared, state welfare benefits would provide for adequate food and cover the rent and even the mortgage.
Many of the foodbank volunteers belong to that post-war generation, now in retirement age. For example, Laurie was a young man during the decades of deindustrialisation. Laurie recalls his father’s response to his decision to take the summer off work for a holiday, after being made redundant from the shipyards in 1974:
“He didn’t like that at all but I said, ’Well, I’ve got a few quid, I’ll start back in September.’ And as soon as September came, I got another job; but he wasn’t happy.”
While Laurie shared his father’s commitment to hard work, his own experiences of growing up in an era of full employment had not generated the same fear of being out of work.
Older NWEF volunteers recognise the different challenges experienced by a younger generation today. For example, Shirley, born in 1947, recalls being sacked from a job in the early 1960s:
“I was on my way home to tell my mum I’d lost my job and bumped into a friend who said they were looking for an office junior at her place... I went for the interview, just after lunch and I had the job by 4 o’clock. It was nothing like today, when you lose a job you can’t find another one. It was amazing getting sacked in the morning and still having a job in the evening.”
She returns to the story later in the interview to emphasise the different situation faced by her grandchildren: “I would hate to be a youngster now… I think there’s not security for them, no security whatsoever.”
In Laurie’s younger days, unemployment on his council estate, was so unusual that he can still recall the names of the families who didn’t work. However, while Laurie has strong, positive memories of childhood and young adulthood, he says he cannot remember people helping each other, either practically or financially. Even when pressed to recall mutual support that was not financial, Laurie has no recollection,
“No, I can’t remember anything like that; everybody just used to get on with it. … I can’t remember anybody ever coming and saying, ‘I need help’, or anything like that because my mother would have helped anybody.”
Laurie’s testimony suggests that perhaps the ideal of the tight-knit working-class community was rarely tested in times of plenty. But note that he is also confident that ‘my mother would have helped anybody.’.
Shirley, only a few years older, has childhood memories of helping and being helped, with neighbours rallying around, in particular when her mother had to go to hospital for an operation; but also in more everyday ways, passing down clothing or sharing food. Neighbourly support could be directly financial: Kath recalls door-to-door collections for a neighbour’s funeral costs, to avoid the shame of a pauper’s funeral. However, help was more likely to be in kind. Janet recalled different periods of her life where support was given to her mother:
“…But when we lived in the flats, we used to call her my auntie Lina, my auntie Violet and there used to be Mrs Smith, Mrs Brown, Mrs Bernard, Mrs Whole… we used to go in different flats and have things to eat. One day they used to cook and one day it was going round, in all the flats. So my mum did struggle, we knew she did.”
Coal-sharing is another recurring story. A family who had a worker in the coalmining industry would bring home sufficient quantities of coal to share with others on the street, often in exchange for a bartered favour. Reciprocity was not necessarily based on friendship. Shirley remembers “Auntie Jessie” (not a relative) who lived in the flat below them as a “nosey bugger” who was not well liked, but who kept an eye on her and her siblings while her mother was working.
Interviewees variously narrate family life as a close-knit source of support and a conflictual and traumatic environment. Happy childhood memories often related to trips to the coast, or holidays for younger interviewees. Meals were usually cooked from scratch with simple, healthy ingredients, and food ‘treats’ were carefully managed to make the most of a limited budget. For example, Janet, in large family of ten, recalled,
“On a Friday night when me da used to get his wages, we used to get four bags of chips, a bag of batter and sometimes we used to get their fish and that used to go round 10 a way. I don't know how they done it but they did.”
In trying to explore with interviewees why some ‘life shock’ events today have led people into extreme poverty, indicated by them needing the foodbank, a key question is whether there is someone to provide ‘back up’ in times of difficulty. For example, single dad Lee described the devastating loss of his partner leading to his own loss of work, and his inability to navigate the benefits system on his own which led to sanctions.
There are traces of the financial mutual aid traditions of co-operatives and friendly societies in stories of how families managed their money in the past and present. Shirley recalls her mother receiving the ‘divvy’ or dividend from the local co-operative. This was a vital part of working-class budgeting strategies, particularly during times of hardship. Keith, in his 70s, is one of our oldest interviewees and remembers his mother using ‘tick’ as a budgeting strategy:
“My mother was very poor. She used to get tick every day – I dunno if you know what tick is? Off the local man, the local shop, and when she got paid on a Monday, she paid [it all back] on a Monday.”
Keith’s mother may also have been part of a co-operative, as day-to-day credit was an important part of the co-operative movement, particularly during the economic crises of the inter-war period. Other financial management strategies may have been more predatory. Shirley’s memories of the ‘Provy lady’ coming each week perhaps foregrounds the kind of payday lending that many anti-poverty groups now lambast. In contrast, however, she understood that her mother was engaged in a form of money management that allowed the family to afford one-off expenses, such as the new outfits which were an annual tradition at Easter.
Many interviewees talk frankly about their financial circumstances. They demonstrate a forensic knowledge of their own budgets and detailed strategies for managing tight finances. In the absence of the institutionalised financial arrangements outlined above, people find informal ways to share financial management, such as shared Christmas savings clubs. Jim describes helping a close friend who is struggling with repayment of her Universal Credit advance. He gets her shopping towards the end of the month, knowing he will be repaid on pay day.
This description from Jacqueline outlines everyday efforts to manage spending:
“I go to Lidl's and Specials. I go meet the fishers, do all little bargains and that. ASDA do things cheaper then, and Lidl's do cheaper things in and then Specials will have theirs in. See what specials are going, because sometimes Specials do bread for 20p. [laughs] and butter for 50p. I'm always popping into Specials. Aye, always looking for a bargain.”
Jacqueline was brought up by her single dad, and is now his carer:
“My da loves a bargain. He misses it, he says, with him having a stroke, he says the most thing he misses is going to the, the Marie Curie second-hand shop, the one in West Road.”
Living with low income has required negotiating close financial management and finding simple pleasures. However, relentless ‘managing’ can be exhausting. Some 60 percent of the recent interviewees have underlying health issues, and this figure is reflected in larger studies. Physical and mental ill-health can be both the cause and symptom of low incomes or needing social security payments. Poverty obstructs a social life and exacerbates feelings of isolation.
While almost all interviewees positively recalled some form of community support or mutual aid, many expressed reluctance to accept help themselves. Some volunteers have reappraised this reluctance to accept help. Vicky is a younger volunteer who has herself had extended periods without paid work due to caring responsibilities and health issues. She recalled spending a winter with holes in her shoes when she was a young, single mother. This story is told as an example of her extreme independence – there were family members who would probably have helped but she chose not to reveal her financial difficulties. However, Vicky says that since working in the foodbank, she has occasionally accepted food parcels during particularly difficult times. She reflects that if she had been able to access the foodbank when her child was young, she could have saved the money to buy shoes, demonstrating a significant overlap between ‘food poverty’ and poverty-in-general.
Vicky’s paid and unpaid working life has involved caring work. When asked why she thinks it important to help others, she says:
“Because you might be in their shoes one day or I’ve been in the shoes that a lot of the clients are in and… I just think, I mean, maybe it was drilled into me when I was little is you help people. To me, you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
Reluctance to receive help may be influenced by the social stigma associated with poverty. Kath, a lay leader within the Church of the Venerable Bede on West Road and one of NWEF’s instigators, tells a story of realising she was ‘poor’ for the first time when she was 12, during a day out organised by a local charity.
“I lived in Elswick at the time and they took us up to the Lake District, Penrith, for a day out. I remember and my dad had bought me a pair of jeans the day before and I got a white t-shirt, so I felt like I was the bee’s knees with these new clothes on and I went up there and I heard her telling this, ‘oh this is poor families from Elswick’ and I thought, ‘Wow!’. I know this sounds daft but it was like my rose-coloured glasses came off and it was quite difficult to accept it at first.”
Kath’s story echoes the findings of Schildrick and MacDonald’s research with low income families in Teeside, where they describe people’s reluctance to identify as ‘poor’. Kath reflects that she had seen people worse off than she was, and associated poverty with dirt and homelessness.
“I didn’t associate money with poverty by the way. You just don’t, you never see money, so you don’t, do you know what I mean? It wasn’t something you looked at.”
Keith, our oldest interviewee, completely rejected any stigma that might be associated with poverty, saying that one of the things he likes about the foodbank is the chance to interact with other people “like myself”. He says simply, “I was born poor and I’ll die poor, and I’m quite happy.”
Kath makes a clear distinction between her experience of the woman on the trip, who shamed her, and the kind of mutual assistance she saw in her own neighbourhood.
“There might have been poverty but people cared. There’s one thing I’ll always remember is, somebody always picked you up if you were crying, if you fell down, if you cut your leg. Somebody always looked after you.”
The ‘shame’ factor comes in when there is real or perceived power imbalance. While people often spoke about a stigma associated with the foodbank, clients praise the warm and welcoming atmosphere they experience on arrival. Dan recalls his initial reluctance to attend the foodbank, but says female volunteers reassured him. He now attends most weeks, “mainly for a natter and a meal or whatever … but I am going to start doing the gardening to give something back.” Based on our research, the foodbank has adopted as a strategic priority the need to create volunteering opportunities for clients.
Viewed from the outside, the Trussell Trust seems like a stereotypical Church of England charity. Its well-publicised rules constricting the way food is provided to those in need so as to avoid creating ‘dependency’ do, indeed, seem to hark back to Victorian times. However, the localised sense of community solidarity driving much of the volunteering mitigates against the top-down charity model. Rules are interpreted in a way that makes sense of context. In informal conversation, a number of foodbank volunteers have made the point that they realise they are occasionally “taken for a ride” in that clients may exaggerate stories of hardship. They conclude this is a risk worth taking to ensure no-one who needs help is turned away. In these comments there are suggestions of the “undeserving poor”, but also a recognition of the hardship caused by insecure work and inadequate welfare provisions, and a desire that no-one should fall through the gaps of the tenuous safety net the foodbank provides.
Kath emphasises the difference between sympathy and empathy:
“I don’t sympathise with people because to have sympathy for somebody means that I’m looking down on them somehow, does that make sense?
“…we have all these different things wrong with us, every single person has got something wrong with them, everybody. Some are lucky, some are not. You need to be able to say, ‘I can help as far as I can go but then it’s up to you’, that’s empathy. Empathy is saying, ‘I’ll take you so far by the hand but then it’s up to you’”.
Dean describes the difference between the way the foodbank makes him feel, in contrast with the Job Centre:
“They look after you if you have got any issues, whether you are feeling poorly, if you just want to go and have a little chat to someone or a shoulder to cry on. If you need anything the staff are there. You don’t have to make a meeting or anything like you do with the Job Centre if you want to speak to someone. There is always someone in the food bank who will sit with you and you can just literally offload as much as you like and the support is there.”
Interviewees are divided as to whether community support is a thing of the past. When asked if things have changed, James countered:
“No, I don't think it has, to be honest. I really don't think it has. I think it's - people are still, I've heard people here helping out each other in the foodbank. You know, doing favours for each other. I think it's, I don't think it's really changed, to be honest.”
In almost every interview, whether with a client or a volunteer, there are small mentions of everyday actions to support James’s position.
Viewed in their historical context, contemporary foodbanks in some ways resemble the Victorian welfare system and the workhouse. We have made these connections elsewhere: Universal Credit is an official, deliberate return to an earlier form of welfare state – one that punishes the poor and stigmatises provision. However, we believe as well as considering welfare models, it is important to understand people’s lived experiences in times of economic hardship – including the 1930s and 1980s as well as now. We ask policy makers to consider whether they truly want to create a system where people retreat from the state as something to be feared.
During the current Coronavirus crisis, the alternative tradition of mutual aid has been to the fore. Listening to oral history interviews with foodbank clients and volunteers, this history is abundant.
The people we have listened to at Newcastle West End Foodbank, whether volunteers or clients, narrate a history of hardship in Newcastle’s West End that has been ameliorated by a range of mutual aid strategies. The interviews show a thread of “managing” activity related to the mutual aid and co-operative tradition. We argue that welfare policies should support people to manage the difficult times of life, rather than the current situation where Universal Credit is another ‘life shock’ to be negotiated.
In world that is increasingly digitised and globalised, it is clear that some people still find value in a sense of identity that connects to a particular locality. This place-based identity continues to draw on working-class traditions of community self-help and mutual aid that developed prior to the welfare state. At Newcastle West End Foodbank, volunteers and clients alike bring this received tradition to their experiences of charity-based food provision. Policy makers would do well to listen to their voices.
Foodbank Histories is a collaborative research project involving the Newcastle University Oral History Collective, community organisation Northern Cultural Projects, and Newcastle West End Foodbank (NWEF).
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H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.